GCSE English: The Speckled Band / Lamb to the Slaughter

Post length: 2,001 words, almost 9 minutes.

The following essay was written for my GCSE English course in October 2000 and contrasts Arthur Conan Doyle’s short Sherlock Holmes story “The Adventure of the Speckled Band” with Roald Dahl’s “Lamb to the Slaughter.” It is roughly 1900 words long, and comes with a tip of the hat to Ms Roberts (presumably formally) of Ryburn Valley High School. It’s released here under a Creative Commons Attribution-Non-Commercial 2.0 UK: England & Wales Licence.

Explain what makes A. C. Doyle’s ‘The Speckled Band’ typical of the nineteenth century detective story genre, and how does Roald Dahl’s ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’ subvert this genre?

Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories changed the set pattern of the nineteenth century detective story. Prior to Doyle’s stories the detective had to wait for the criminal to make a mistake for them to be caught. However, Sherlock Holmes was the first of the detectives to work out who the murderer was by his own deduction, this new idea was introduced with the publication of A. C. Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories in ‘The Strand’ magazine. Although his was a new concept in detective stories all the other features of the story were very typical of a detective story of the time. This pattern of story is known as a ‘Whodunnit?’ and has many features which can be seen in most detective stories today. There are, however, writers who challenge this idea of the genre and basis by creating stories which break out of the set pattern and aim to make the reader see the detective story in a different light. In the traditional detective story the detective always catches the criminal and it all works out well. This happens especially in Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes stories where, all but once, the criminal is caught. These stories were written in the late 1800s, a time when quite significant changes were taking place in England to do with the decline of the institutionalized church, and new ideas that there may not be a God were beginning to be introduced into society. This was also a time when serious, high profile crime was on an increase and people needed a heroic figure to cling to. Sherlock Holmes was that hero, the person who always managed to catch the criminal which the public were so worried about, and that is probably why his stories sold so well and were so successful at the time. This genre of story is still popular now, but another type of story has also become more popular – the psychological thriller!

Two such examples of this are the Sherlock Holmes story ‘The Speckled Band’ (1892), and ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’, a Roald Dahl story (1954).

Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story, ‘The Speckled Band’, is a very typical example of a ‘Whodunnit’ nineteenth Century detective story in many ways. At the beginning the reader is thrown into the story in the middle (in medias res), at the point where a young, frightened, lady comes to the detective for help “‘It seems that a young lady has arrived in a considerable state of excitement’”. The story is told by explaining the events leading up to the point where the reader joins the story through the eyes of Helen Stoner while she is explaining it to Holmes. It tells the reader about the past events in the family and why she is so worried now. Holmes makes Helen go into huge detail of the events around the time of her sisters death to help him to get a full picture of the event, he questions her on every detail, such as:

‘And was it your custom always to lock yourselves in at night?’
‘And why?’

This is not the case in the story ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’, where the story begins at the very beginning, before any crime has been committed by introducing both the victim and the culprit – a detective and his loving wife, “She lay aside her sewing, stood up, and went forward to kiss him as he came in.” The story is followed by the reader as the story unfolds itself to them chronologically.

In the traditional detective story format of the nineteenth century, the detective works through the clues and uses them to come up with an answer as to who the culprit is, and Sherlock Holmes does this in ‘The Speckled Band’. By listening to the story told by Helen Stoner when she is at his house, Holmes manages to deduce how the murder is committed, and a visit to the actual house where the murder took place only serves to re-enforce the ideas he already had, “‘I knew that we would find a ventilator before ever we came to Stoke Moran’”. This type of story has, also, a number of ‘clues’ which are introduced to confuse both the reader and the detective alike, such as the “wandering Gypsies” wearing speckled head scarves and the cheetah and baboon, this type of clue is known as a red herring and is typical of the genre. Red herrings also add to the stories suspense by making the reader think of another way in which the murder could have been committed, and by sometimes even appearing to make the actual conclusion impossible.

At the end of the story Holmes sits down to talk to Watson as they “travelled back home the next day”. He tells Watson about how he reached his conclusion of who the murderer was and how all the clues all fit together to show who the murderer was, and how the murder was committed, “The discovery that this was a dummy and that the bed was clamped to the floor, instantly gave rise to the suspicion that the rope was there as a bridge for something passing through the hole, and coming to the bed.” This is, again, typical of the nineteenth Century detective story, it all draws to a conclusion and the detective explains to both his sidekick and the reader how he figured it out, it is the dénouement of the story.

In Roald Dahl’s story there is just the one clue – the ‘leg of lamb’, (the murder weapon), which gets eaten by the detectives at the end of the story, “their voices thick and sloppy because their mouths were full of meat.” This event is also used to entertain the reader by using ‘black comedy’, and it ironic as the reader knows that they are eating the evidence, but the detectives do not.

This story is not mainly told from the perspective of the detective trying to unravel the story, it is told from the perspective of someone looking in on the situation, someone who has been there from the start. This story also does not have a point at which the it is all brought together, it has no dénouement. Instead the writer leaves you with the murderer having gained a victory over the detectives and them still not knowing who, or how, the murder was committed.

The traditional detective story has certain main characters in it who usually assume certain roles in the story. The detective in Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story is the stereo typical hero of the story. He is the intelligent person who works out the crime using his own power of deduction. He is made out to be cool and calm under pressure, such as when Dr. Grimesby Roylott comes to his dwelling to tell Holmes not to ‘dare meddle with’ his affairs, having followed his step daughter, “…screamed the old man furiously. ‘But I have heard the crocuses promise well,’ continues my companion imperturbably.” Holmes is also well dresses and upper-middle class. In Dahl’s story, however, the detectives are made to look stupid by eating the evidence, “‘OK then, give me some more.’” They are also not well mannered “one of them belched.”

In ‘The Speckled Band’, Holmes has a sidekick, Dr. Watson, who is less intelligent than him, and he gets looked down on and Holmes is also condescending, to use a famous phrase of Holmes’ ‘Elementary my dear Watson’, and this is particularly in evidence when Holmes, when asked by Watson if he has “seen more in these rooms than is evident to me”, replies, “No, but I fancy I may have deduced a little more.

Dahl’s story has some characters which the traditional stories do not, and it also does not have a full complement of traditional characters either. It does, however have a damsel, but not as in the detective stories of the nineteenth century as a relation to the victim who may also be in danger herself, but as the murderer. She begins the story as a loving and loyal wife to the victim, but soon snaps when she hears the news that he may leave her. Still following this, and although the reader knows who the murderer was they are made to feel sorry for her and even a little interested in what she is thinking when she laughs near the end, “And in the other room, Mary Maloney began to giggle.” But yet the reader may still be on her side.

The setting of the two stories could not have been much different; the Sherlock Holmes story set on a night which had “wind howling outside and the rain was beating and splashing against the windows.” It is also a large ancestral home, but the Roald Dahl story is set in a “Warm and clean” house.

The first of the two settings is very Gothic and reminiscent of the ‘Dracula’ and ‘Frankenstein’ and other Gothic stories which were popular at the time of A. C. Doyle. The setting of a stormy night with the wind rushing outside and creating all sorts of other noise helps to build up the tension of the story, it is pathetic fallacy – the banging and crashing and screams of pain all go together. The second setting, a “warm and clean” house is not typical of the genre, and is another way in which the author, Roald Dahl, has subverted the genre.

The language used in A. C. Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes story is now a bit dated, it is written in a way which we do not speak anymore – Holmes says to Watson, “for goodness’ sake let us have a quiet pipe,” but it gives the story a feeling of time and in some places it can even add to the dramatic tension of the story. On the other hand Dahl’s story, ‘Lamb to the Slaughter’, uses more contemporary language, it was written in 1954 and uses typical language from 1954, but this is in no way less effective to the story.

There are many ways in which these two stories are different, and they were written in a style that was popular in their day. In the nineteenth century there was an increase in crime and a decrease in institutionalized religion, and people needed someone to help them to still see the good in the world and to reassure them that the criminals were still caught, they needed a hero, and so Sherlock Holmes was ‘born’. By the twentieth century people were beginning to become more interested in how the minds of people worked, and so authors began to write stories which aimed to make the reader feel puzzled by what they should be thinking and what they are, and so the psychological thriller was born.

Even today, however, there is a growing number of the traditional detective story on television and in books, such as the Inspector Frost series, which are still ever popular, so perhaps we do still need that something to hold on to – that hero in whom we can trust, that detective who always gets the criminal, that bit of security which we lack in our lives, that chance to get away from the real world, but we can feel through the medium of books and television.

Posted on Wednesday 1st August, 2012 at 2:30 pm in School Work.
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