The murder mystery genre was first recognised as a major genre during the 19th century. Pioneers of this genre include the Norwegian writer Mauritz Hansen as his novel “The murder of machine operator Rolfsen”, published in 1839 is considered to be the earliest known novel of this genre. Another pioneer of the genre includes Edgar Allan Poe. Many of the conventions associated with the murder mystery genre prior to Doyle arriving onto the murder mystery scene, would have been invented by Hansen and Poe and would have influenced Doyle in his stories (It’s fairly well known that Doyle was a very keen reader of Poe’s works). However, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, unlike Hansen or Poe, is believed to have popularised the genre with his Sherlock Holmes stories.Order now
There are various conventions associated with the genre. The most well known conventions of this genre include: a typically vulnerable female victim, the use of a sinister weapon for the murder, dark and horrific setting(s) for the scene of the crime(s). Other conventions of this genre include the motives behind the murder(s) generally being of vengeance, jealousy or financial gain. Yet another convention is the method used to kill the victim: poison, strangulation, stabbing, gunshot.
There are conventions also in the way the crimes are uncovered and solved: the crimes were typically solved by a detective who is sharp, intellectual and fervent about their job; never failing to inspect even the most diminutive details. Another conventions attached to this genre is the author using fairly vague but convincing details, clues to mislead the readers (red-herrings) and of course the perpetrator eventually being brought to justice.
In ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ Dahl subverts the conventions of the genre from the very first beginning as he names the book “Lamb to the Slaughter”; giving the reader an impression that something rather sinister is going to take place or that an innocent “lamb” is going to be lead to the slaughter. The title however juxtaposes with the beginning of the story; setting a very inviting and clean atmosphere for the crime scene instead of the conventionally dark and gloomy setting.
Dahl also subverts the conventions by being meticulously detailed about simple, everyday objects, surroundings and actions e.g. instead of mentioning that Mr. Maloney drank the whiskey, Dahl gives particular attention to the fact that he unusually “drained half of the drink in one go”. This builds tension by making Mr. Maloney look like the “to be” perpetrator; describing his actions an ominous slant prior to revealing the plaintive news to his wife, e.g. “keeping his head down to avoid light hitting the lower part of his face and the slight twitch in the corner of his left eye.” This also builds tension as it makes Mr. Maloney look villainous and creating anticipation within the reader for the crime to take place.
Here onwards Dahl simply writes about Mrs. Maloney’s feelings to the lamenting news revealed by her husband. This was done to ease the tension and for the readers to sympathise and understand her before they find out about the real perpetrator. However, tensions start rising again in the paragraph that contains a mere four words; “A leg of lamb”. This sentence is left alone as a paragraph to help the reader’s realise the fact that this is the point where the title’s meaning is going to be revealed (this builds up tensions amongst the readers making them anxious to know what takes place next).
Dahl cleverly gets across the message that Mrs. Maloney’s act of violence was unplanned in a few different ways. Firstly, as the narrator he ridicules her choice of weapon (the leg of lamb) saying: “She might just as well have hit him with the steel club”. Secondly he uses dialogue to further the point that it was unplanned; “All right, so I’ve killed him”. Thirdly Dahl points out the fact that she rehearsed what to say to the grocer several times (something that isn’t required if the murder was planned). Another convention that gets subverted is that the murderer (Mary Maloney) calls the police herself. She also knows most of the policemen that came that night to investigate the crime scene and affectionately calls the Sergeant (Jack Noonan) by his name, instead of calling him Sergeant. Also worth noting is the fact that the investigators (detectives) know the murderer and the victim.
Yet another convention that gets broken is the fact that all the policeman are extremely kind towards Mary Maloney and after arriving on the scene, rule out her involvement in the murder completely, not something a dedicated but emotionless detective would do. They are also later found to be negligent when it came to their work guidelines i.e. consuming alcoholic drinks. Peculiarly the police officer’s don’t bother asking her to go vacate the house to some other place instead to search the property. They also failed to decline Mary Maloney’s request of eating up the lamb.