Lamb to the Slaughter by Roald Dahl and The Speckled Band by Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

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There are several primary ingredients that should be present in a good murder mystery. These are a death, a motive, an alibi and a suspect.

The main component is suspense, this is very important because the whole idea of a murder mystery is that the reader doesn’t know an extremely important detail. For example, in “The Speckled Band” Conan Doyle chooses to make the murderer and their method the mystery. Whereas in “Lamb to the Slaughter” Dahl chooses to hold the reader in suspense as to whether Mary Maloney is going to be caught. In a stereotypical Murder mystery, the reader usually expects the murderer to be caught, usually after being outwitted by the detective and then facing a climactic showdown.

In ‘Lamb to the slaughter” we learn that Mary Maloney is pregnant and that she is looking forward to starting a family with her husband. From her behaviour we also learn that she adores her husband and is very keen to please him, perhaps over keen. We know this because when Patrick Maloney arrives home, his wife offers to “get his slippers”, “get him another drink” and she refuses to leave him alone when he tells her he doesn’t want any supper. Her behaviour, especially after her husband tells her he wants a divorce borders on obsessive.

Dr. Grimesby Roylott is very spiteful, which, with his size and intelligence makes him a very intimidating man, he plays upon these traits in an attempt to scare Holmes and Watson away from coming to his house in Stoke Moran. We find out that he is a widower and that ‘Helen Stoner’ is not his own daughter. There is also a subtle reference to Dr. Roylott’s time spent in India; this gives a clue as to how the murder has been committed.

Mary Maloney kills her husband by clubbing him to death with a frozen leg of lamb. This is one of the questions that Dahl leaves open to the reader to answer; did Mary Maloney plan to kill her husband or was it spur of the moment? Dr Roylott kills his daughter by training a poisonous snake he caught in India to climb down a rope into her room and bite her, before climbing back up the rope.

I think that Mary Maloney gets away with her murder because she appears to be a less likely murderer than Dr. Roylott. Mary Maloney is friends with all the investigating officers and they think that she and her husband had an idyllic relationship. She plays up to their preconceptions of her status by displaying genuine shock and grief; she was “weeping hysterically”. Grimesby Roylott was suspected of the crime by the local coroner, which shows that he has a history or a tendency to commit violent or malicious acts. The reader is not told how Dr. Roylott reacted after the death of his step-daughter but judging from his character traits and the fact that he carried out the murder, one can assume that he probably didn’t react with too much sadness.

The murderers both attempt to hide their weapon; Roylott’s is unimaginatively in a safe (the first place Holmes thinks to look; “What’s in here?”). Mary Maloney hides her murder weapon in an ingenious way. The Police officers are searching for something solid, but by the time they see the meat, it has changed state and is soft. The officers then proceed to eat the lamb which disposes of the weapon for her.

The detectives investigating the murder in “Lamb to the Slaughter” start making their conclusions with pre-conceived ideas of the precise details of the murder, some of which are constructed by Mary Maloney. For example ‘She fell into Jack Noonan’s arms, weeping hysterically.’ This kind of behaviour makes it appear as though she is in genuine distress. Holmes starts investigating his case with an advantage; he has been informed of some background details. He knows of the agreement allowing the daughters a certain amount of money should they get married. This provides Holmes with a motive and a suspect to begin with.

In my opinion, Sherlock Holmes would have discovered Mary Maloney was the killer of her husband. I think he would have deduced the fact that she could have had motive to kill her husband and a possible weapon in the form of the leg of lamb.

Sherlock Holmes in ‘The Speckled Band’ is extremely observant. For example, he uses his powers of observation to work out that Miss Helen Stoner had been travelling in a “Dog-cart which throws up mud in such a way that it spatters the arm on only one side”. The policemen in ‘Lamb to the slaughter’ use very basic methods of investigation, they rely on simple techniques to try to find the killer. For example, they are intent on the notion that “if you find the weapon, you find the killer”. They overlook other methods of investigation such as looking for a motive. These detectives also have means to use a limited amount of forensic tests, whereas Holmes doesn’t use any type of forensic evidencing to attempt to determine who the killer was.

The writers build up tension by giving the detectives in each story hints as to the identity of the killer. These hints are glaringly obvious in “Lamb to the slaughter” especially, because the reader knows who committed the murder and how they did it. Dahl includes lines such as “The killer may have hidden the weapon on the premises”. This kind of comment leaves the reader in suspense as to whether the detectives will figure out that the murder weapon is actually in the oven cooking. This suspense is turned into humour at the end of the story with the comment “The weapon’s probably right under our noses”. This is said whilst the lamb is literally where they metaphorically predict, this is unusual in a murder mystery because the story ends in Humour.

Conan Doyle builds up tension in “The speckled band” by using night time as a way to provoke feelings of tension and suspense. For example, when Holmes and Watson are sitting in the dark in Roylott’s house Watson refers to the situation as “dreadful”.

I preferred “Lamb to the Slaughter” more than “The Speckled band” because I found it an enjoyable alternative to the format usually found in Murder Mysteries. The main suspense was not placed within the boundaries of who the killer was, or how they committed their crime. I found the story a well written and intelligent tale. I enjoyed the way that Dahl left the question open to the reader as to whether Mary Maloney had planned slightly in advance to murder her husband.

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