In third grade, during an all-day reading marathon (I loved my elementary school), all of the students were allowed to bring in pop and snacks and a sleeping bag to setup shop wherever we liked so that we could literally read the entire school day. I remember I brought in Matilda by Roald Dahl, and the memories of lying under my third-grade teacher’s desk while consuming Dahl’s story of supernatural precociousness is burned into my brain like an intricate etching.
I would come to discover that Roald Dahl was extremely important in shaping my literary outlook (more than any other author), because of his monumental impact on movies, books, and my childhood. I would also come to find out that Roald Dahl had a long career as a short story writer that was quite different from his long career as a children’s author. As it stands, Dahl wrote many influential and daring short stories, from “The Man from the South” to the story I would like to discuss today: “Lamb to the Slaughter.”
“Lamb to the Slaughter” is about Mary Maloney, who is six-months pregnant, and her detective husband. One night after work, Mary’s husband Patrick gets home and tells her that he plans on leaving her—but he will definitely put her up with some money so there shouldn’t be a big fuss.
“And he told her. It didn’t take long, four or five minutes at most, and she sat very still through it all, watching him with a kind of dazed horror as he went further and further away from her with each word.”
(Lamb to the Slaughter | Roald Dahl)
Mary, seemingly a dotting wife, goes to prepare dinner, still in shock at the revelation, and fetches a frozen lamb leg, which she intends to cook. Presumably, in a fit of rage, Mary comes back from the basement and strikes her husband across the back of the head with the lamb leg, which, apparently, was like hitting him “with a steel club.”
Mary, realizing that she has murdered her husband, sets about covering up the murder by heading to the store to get potatoes and peas to serve with the baking lamb. As Mary rationalizes her actions, she believes that it will seem like she was out just getting things ready for dinner while somebody (definitely not her) murdered her husband. After returning home, she calls the police, who arrive and investigate, and she concludes that since the police just need to find the murder weapon (a spanner, they think), Mary convinces them to eat the lamb, thus eliminating the murder weapon.
The policemen discuss over their meal of lamb:
“That’s the hell of a big club the gut must’ve used to hit poor Patrick,” one of them was saying. “The doc says his skull was smashed all to pieces just like from a sledgehammer.”
“That’s why it ought to be easy to find.”
“Exactly what I say.”
“Whoever done it, they’re not going to be carrying a thing like that around with them longer than they need.”
One of them belched.
“Personally, I think it’s right here on the premises.”
“Probably right under our very noses. What you think, Jack?”
(Lamb to the Slaughter | Roald Dahl)
In the end, Mary is sitting on the couch in the next room listening to the officers discuss her husband’s death and she begins to giggle, knowing that they are consuming the evidence.
I love this story as much as I love “The Man from the South” by Dahl. It is a little evil and entirely plausible and has strange moments of humanity and realism (like when she sits on her bed and practices how she will talk to the grocer right after murdering her husband in a fit of emotional rage). Dahl has a way of incorporating very real moments and feelings into stories of violence and the strange, such as in his short story “The Landlady.”
I highly recommend “Lamb to the Slaughter” if you haven’t already read it in a literature class or in high school. You will enjoy it if you are a fan of Dahl’s storytelling, and you can find it readily online, too, which makes reading it all the easier.