In “Lamb to the Slaughter,” Dahl shows his mastery of short-form psychological horror, in which the very absence of overtly fantastical elements only accentuates the building atmosphere of horror. The entire story takes place within the apartment of one Mary Maloney, pregnant wife of a loutish and incompetent police detective. Hers has been a steadfastly domestic existence, and she has ignored her husband’s misbehavior until one night, when he comes home late after yet another round of drinking and informs her that he is going to leave her for another woman. Still she clings to her illusion of happy domesticity, telling him she will fix supper.
Only when he sneeringly tells her not to bother with supper does she snap and bludgeon him with the frozen leg of lamb that was to have been their meal. After the initial fit of anger, she comes back to her senses and realizes what she has done. Not wanting to ruin the life of the baby she is expecting, she puts the leg of lamb into the oven and goes to the grocery store to get some vegetables. While there, she makes a point of talking cheerfully with the grocer about fixing her husband’s supper.
Upon returning to their apartment, she screams in horror and makes a great commotion at finding her husband’s body lying on the floor. She then calls the police, and within the hour they are investigating. Agreeing that he was killed by a heavy, blunt object, they begin a search for the murder weapon and are quite puzzled at being unable to find it. After a few hours, Mary comments that she had forgotten to turn the oven off in all the confusion and suggests that the officers might wish to eat the now-cooked leg of lamb. Without a second thought they all set to eating and discussing the case, never realizing that the meat they are avidly devouring is in fact the missing murder weapon. Meanwhile, Mary sits in the living room and giggles softly to herself in amusement at the way in which she has tricked the police.
The ending is particularly striking because it so blatantly violates the expectation of the murder mystery, namely, that the culprit should be caught at the end. Yet at the same time there seems to be a certain justice in Mary’s not being caught, that she was in fact justified in taking the life of a man so loutish as to not only betray his wife by dallying with another woman but also to abandon his wife when in the vulnerable state of pregnancy, thus also abandoning his unborn child.
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...
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