Monday, July 16, 2012

Roald Dahl and The Perfect Little Murder

For most readers of this blog - and almost certainly for most parents, especially those who take their children to the movies - Roald Dahl is one of the preeminent authors in recent times of books and stories for children. The titles roll quickly across the mind: James and the Giant Peach; Charlie and the Chocolate Factory; Fantastic Mr. Fox; Danny, the Champion of the World; and The BFG - for "Big Friendly Giant". If memory serves, my two daughters had most of these titles - among others of Dahl's - on their bookshelves.

Perhaps somewhat less well-known is the fact that Dahl wrote a large number of adult stories, many with a macabre theme, some downright scary, and a few - though not many - that were just a little bit repulsive. At least to this delicate soul. (A "delicate soul" who has written three murder mysteries? Ah, well.) Dahl is justly famous for the unexpected twist at the end of many of  his adult stories.

                                     Roald Dahl in 1954        


                                     Dahl in his later years

A bit of a bio is called for here.

Dahl was British; not English, not really, having been born in Wales of Norwegian parents. (His given name, Roald, was for the Norwegian polar explorer, Roald Amundsen, a national hero in Norway at the time of Dahl's birth, in 1916.) When Dahl was only three, his father died suddenly of pneumonia. His mother considered returning to Norway with Dahl and his siblings, but decided to stay in Wales. The reason? Dahl's father wanted his children educated in British schools; he believed that Britain had the best schools in the world. He might even have been right about that. Had Dahl's mother taken her children back to Norway, all of those marvellous books and stories might never have been written. Almost too sad to think about.

Dahl was twenty-three when the Second World War started, and he was living in Tanganyika (now Tanzania), working for Shell Petroleum. (It is also worth mentioning - to me, certainly - that before he went off to Africa, Dahl spent three weeks hiking in Newfoundland with the Public Schools' Exploring Society. Yes, it is a small world, isn't it?)

Dahl's young adulthood is full of the kind of adventure and risk that most of us can only dream about; or read about in biographies and novels. When the war did break out, he joined the King's African Rifles, rounding up Germans living in Tanganyika. After that he joined the Royal Air Force, took advanced flying training in Iraq at RAF Habbaniya, 50 miles west of Baghdad, where he was posted to No. 80 Squadron RAF. There he learned to fly the last biplane fighter aircraft in the RAF, the obsolete (at the time) Gloster Gladiator.


The aging Gladiator was nearly Dahl's undoing. On a flight from Egypt to Libya where he was next to be posted, he got lost - the directions he was given were later found to be wildly erroneous - almost ran out of fuel, and had to effect an emergency landing in the desert in the gathering dusk. The plane's undercarriage (non-retractable) hit a boulder and he crashed. His skull was fractured, his nose smashed, and he was temporarily blinded.

Dahl fared better in his next assignment - after he had recovered from his injuries - but he was again very much in harm's way. In 1941, the Germans invaded Greece. In April of that year, Dahl was involved in what became known as the Battle of Athens. This time, though, he was flying a Hawker Hurricane:


The Hurricane was an advanced fighter, and was responsible for more German planes destroyed in the Battle of Britain than the more famous Spitfire. A fact not well enough known.

For me, one of the wonders of Dahl's RAF career was that he was somehow able to "accordion" his six-foot-six-inch frame into a Hurricane. As anyone who has seen a Hurricane will attest - and I have, and I do - it is not a very large plane.

Dahl finished up the War in Washington, D.C., as an Assistant Air Attache, where he was transferred in 1942. By then, he had been credited with at least 5 German planes shot down; and the total was probably higher than that. That qualified him as an "Ace".

In August of 1942, he published his first story in The Saturday Evening Post; "Shot Down Over Libya", more or less based based on the crash of his Gloster Gladiator. At the time, he was being encouraged by the English writer, C.S. Forester, also in Washington then. (Forester was the author of the Horatio Hornblower novels; also The African Queen, later made into a film by John Huston, starring Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn.) Forester worked for the British Information Service, writing propaganda, mainly for American consumption. (And we thought only the other side, the "bad guys" wrote propaganda? Hardly!) And I have to add that Forester introduced Dahl to espionage, and to the activities of the Canadian spymaster William Stephenson, who later became famous as the British Agent, Intrepid. At the same time, Dahl also met Ian Fleming - creator of the inimitable James Bond series. (And was Dahl, a neophyte writer at the time, both "shaken and stirred" by his acquaintance with Fleming? One simply has to wonder about that.)

Anyway, time to return to the "Perfect Little Murder" in the title of today's post. But first a warning - there be "spoilers" to follow. The story is called Lamb To The Slaughter. If you haven't read the story, or seen it on the old Alfred Hitchcock Presents series, and you would like to read it before I spoil it for you, go here:

And then come back to the summary if you like.

The story is deliciously simple. And wicked.

Dahl wrote the story in 1953, and submitted to The New Yorker. It was rejected, along with four other stories that Dahl had submitted. (There is an obvious lesson here.) It was eventually published in Harper's Magazine in September of the same year.

The Hitchcock version was screened (on TV) in April 1958. It was one of only 17 AHP episodes directed by Hitchcock himself. It starred Barbara Bel Geddes as Mary Maloney, the story's protagonist.

Bel Geddes, I will add, also starred in the 1958 Hitchcock classic film, Vertigo, with James Stewart. She is probably best known for her long-running stint - 1978-1990 - as "Miss" Ellie Ewing in the prime-time soap opera, Dallas.

But I digress. Back to the story

Mary Maloney, a devoted housewife, is waiting for her husband Patrick to return home from his job. Patrick is a  police detective. When Patrick enters the house, Mary notices that he is strangely aloof. She thinks that he is tired from work. But Patrick finally reveals to her what is making him act strangely. It is not explicitly stated in the narrative, but it is clear that he is leaving her.

Seemingly in shock from her husband's revelation, Mary fetches a large leg of lamb from the deep-freezer in the cellar, to cook for their dinner. Patrick angrily tells Mary not to make him any dinner. He tells her he is going out.

At that point, Mary Maloney simply walked up behind him and without any pause she swung the big frozen leg of lamb high in the air and brought it down as hard as she could on the back of his head.

She might just as well have hit him with a steel club.

She stepped back a pace, waiting, and the funny thing was that he remained standing there for at least four or five seconds, gently swaying.  Then he crashed to the carpet.

Mary realizes that Patrick is dead, and now she has to create a story to tell the detectives who will investigate his death.

She prepares the leg of lamb that she has killed her husband with and places it in the oven to cook. After practicing a routine, she visits her grocer, Sam, to establish an alibi.

It wasn’t six o’clock yet and the lights were still on in the grocery shop.
“Hullo Sam,” she said brightly, smiling at the man behind the counter.

“Why, good evening, Mrs. Maloney.  How’re you?”

“I want some potatoes please, Sam.  Yes, and I think a can of peas.”

The man turned and reached up behind him on the shelf for the peas.

“Patrick’s decided he’s tired and doesn’t want to eat out tonight,” she told him.  “We usually go out Thursdays, you know, and now he’s caught me without any vegetables in the house.”

“Then how about meat, Mrs. Maloney?”

“No, I’ve got meat, thanks.  I got a nice leg of lamb from the freezer.”

When Mary returns to the house, she enters the room with her dead husband lying on the floor and calls the police. When the police (who are all friends of her husband) arrive, they ask Mary questions and look at the scene. Considering Mary above suspicion, the police conclude that Patrick was killed with a large blunt object, likely made of metal.

After they conduct a fruitless search around the house and surrounding area, Mary is reminded that the leg of lamb is cooking in the oven. She offers it to the policemen. They hesitate at first, but.....

.....they were clearly hungry, and in the end they were persuaded to go into the kitchen and help themselves.  The woman stayed where she was, listening to them speaking among themselves, their voices thick and sloppy because their mouths were full of meat.

“Have some more, Charlie?”

“No.  Better not finish it.”

“She wants us to finish it. She said so.  Be doing her a favor.”

“Okay then.  Give me some more.”

“That’s a hell of a big club the murderer 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?”

And in the other room, Mary Maloney began to giggle.

And that's today's post.

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