Reading the Story:
Begin by asking students to name a few of the famous books by Roald Dahl that they have read in the past. Once they have named a few, tell them that they will be reading a short story today by Mr. Dahl, but that it takes a much darker turn than his usual stories. This one involves a murder! Explain that they will be reading the story today with a specific purpose in mind. They are going to imagine that the murderer has been apprehended and put on trial for what the have done. In fact, they are going to assume the role of defense attorney for the accused murderer. Tell the students that they are going to have to pay close attention to details in the story as they read, because their job is to prove that the murderer is not guilty of the crime she is accused of committing.
Re-Focusing on Story Excerpts:
Now that they have read the story, they will be ready to re-read the text to look for details to support their closing argument for Mary Maloney’s defense. (You may want to show the clip of Atticus Finch’s closing argument from the movie To Kill a Mockingbird as an example of a good, persuasive closing argument to give them some support for the writing they will soon begin.) Direct them now to the graphic organizer I have included with this lesson, which has hints provided for each type of quote to guide them in the right direction. Tell them they may wish to work with a partner as they go back through the story looking for quotes and evidence that they can use to support their closing argument and their case for temporary insanity. They will need to gather at least three quotes from the story that support that their client was of a diminished mental capacity at the time of the crime and is no longer in that state, in order to avoid prison time.
Starting the Writing Assignment:
The closing argument easily lends itself to the standard five paragraph persuasive essay. Students should begin their piece with an introduction to their plea of temporary insanity followed by a paragraph for each of their three quotes, along with an explanation of how each relates to Mrs. Maloney’s plea for temporary insanity. Their ending paragraph can summarize their points and convince the judge/jury that their client should not go to prison for this crime. If you have them write their rough draft using this drafting worksheet, they can use the organization checklist on the second page to check their use of the orgainzation trait once their draft is completed.
The Rest of the Writing Process:
A persuasive essay is a great venue for the trait of Word Choice. Once their rough drafts are completed, have them switch papers with another group and revise for word choice using the Word Choice Post-it® Note-sized templates provided here. Remind your revisers that they are looking for great words that will be instrumental in convincing a jury of Mrs. Maloney’s innocence. You may want to generate a class list of great persuasive words on the board to guide the students in their peer response and revision.
Once each group has completed their final copies, have them share their arguments with the class. You may want to have the students rate the group from 1 to 5 based on their persuasiveness by holding up their fingers. This will give each group immediate feedback on how well they convinced the jury!
The story of the woman who murders her husband with a frozen leg of lamb and then has the murder weapon eaten by the detectives is one of the most famous examples of the “perfect crime” story. However, this work’s value lies, not simply in the originality of the murder method but in the way that Roald Dahl ties this to larger themes. The use of a leg of lamb as an instrument of death reveals the hidden and sinister meanings that lie in seemingly innocent objects. Dahl, like many modern suspense writers, weaves his stories around trivial, everyday events that suddenly take on frightening aspects revealing the danger and uncertainty that underlies modern life, rather than reviving medieval settings and horrors in the manner of the earlier gothic writers.
Mary Maloney lives the life of a devoted housewife almost until she actually murders her husband. The news of her divorce causes no outward change in her behavior. She goes on, as if pretending that nothing has happened will make it so. The murder seems almost an unconscious and unwilled act. However, after the murder, Mary becomes a deliberate and clear thinker. She now artificially creates her alibi for the murder by consciously returning to her innocent state before Patrick’s death. She practices her lines, voice tone, and facial expressions before she goes to the grocery so that they will appear perfectly natural and arouse no suspicions in the grocer’s mind. When Mary arrives home, her shock at seeing Patrick’s body is so spontaneous that she almost seems to have fooled herself. Mary’s deception grows as she manipulates the police, reaching its peak when Patrick’s friends destroy the evidence of his murder as a favor to his wife, who is his killer.
Dahl creates a series of bizarre metamorphoses in this story. A leg of lamb becomes a murder weapon. Mary Maloney, the victim of her husband’s insensitivity, makes him her victim. Patrick, an investigator of crimes, becomes the subject of a criminal investigation. A dead man’s friends console his murderer. The police destroy the evidence needed to trap the criminal. The best hiding place for the murder weapon turns out to be right under the officers’ noses. Dahl reveals how much of “normal” existence is actually a contrived appearance that can be easily manipulated. Mary moves outside the predictable by turning the lamb into a weapon, then overcomes the police by turning the weapon back into a lamb. Having experienced what lies beneath the surface, she can now arrange appearances to her own advantage.