As befits a story dealing with appearances and reality, much of “Lamb to the Slaughter” is told through details that Dahl carefully selects and arranges into various patterns to cause the reader to go below the surface to find the meanings in the story. Reference is made to Mary’s large, dark, placid eyes early in the story, indicating her harmless, domestic personality; they are referred to again when she persuades Patrick’s friends to eat the leg of lamb, revealing this time how deceptive Mary’s appearance is. Throughout the story, words such as “simple,” “easy,” “normal,” and “natural” acquire an ironic overtone, for the reader perceives the complex, artificial, and abnormal state of the world. Patrick’s announcement of divorce and the police officers’ dismissal of Mary as a likely murder suspect are never actually depicted; the reader is left to deduce these events from snatches of dialogue.
Dahl’s technique reaches a hilarious crescendo in the dinner scene, in which the police officers eat the leg of lamb and discuss the possibility of finding the blunt instrument used to kill Patrick. The officers’ complacence, their belief that as soon as they finish eating they will easily be able to track down the murder weapon, and their actual behavior as unwitting accessories to their friend’s murder reveal the polarities on which the story is built. On the surface, the story depicts a world that is orderly, rational, and easily understood, but beneath this world are strange forces that can invest even the most innocent and everyday scenes with grotesque meaning.