A life of the unexpected

A life of the unexpected

Jefferson Chase on Roald Dahl's unexpected endings, and how whisky featured in the work of a man famous for his children's books

Whisky & Culture | 07 Apr 2003 | Issue 30 | By Jefferson Chase

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Roald Dahl lived a life of twists and turns. Born in Wales in 1916 to Norwegian parents, Dahl began working for the Shell Oil Company in East Africa at the age of eighteen. With the outbreak of World War II, he joined the RAF as a fighter pilot, crashing on his first flight and sustaining injuries that would lead him to be discharged in 1941.He was then sent to Washington DC as Assistant Air Attaché. No stranger to a drop of whisky, Dahl quickly became a favourite of American high society, prized for his black humour and his scurrilous anecdotes. It was in America that Dahl began writing fiction. He married a movie starlet, Patricia Neal, split his time between England and the US, and died a wealthy man in 1990.Dahl is best known in the States for children’s books such as Charlie and the Chocolate Factory. British readers, however, may recall him from the 1970s television program Tales of the Expected, which were based on his stories for adults. One of the most popular, entitled Lamb to the Slaughter, opens with a housewife fixing her husband, a policeman, an after-work Scotch and soda:For her, this was always a blissful time of day. She knew he didn’t want to speak much until the first drink was finished, and she, on her side, was content to sit quietly, enjoying his company after the long hours alone in the house. She loved to luxuriate in the presence of this man, and to feel – almost as a sunbather feels the sun – that warm male glow that came out of him to her when they were alone together … She loved the intent, far look in his eyes when they rested on her, the funny shape of the mouth, and especially the way he remained silent about his tiredness, sitting still with himself until the whisky had taken some of it away.Dahl’s stories typically start with images of domestic bliss. But this bliss goes askew.In Lamb to Slaughter, the husband, after another stiff drink to strengthen his nerve, announces that their blessed union is over.This leaves his wife in a state of shock. Her only thought: what is she going to do with the frozen leg of lamb she had planned for dinner?The answer comes swiftly.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.The violence of the crash, the noise, the small table overturning, helped bring her out of her shock. She came out slowly, feeling cold and surprised, and she stood for a while blinking at the body, still holding the ridiculous piece of meat tight with both hands.Note to the unfaithful: if you’re planning to end your marriage, always check beforehand to see what’s on that night’s menu.As a detective’s wife, the woman knows a thing or two about how to cover up a capital crime.She stashes the lamb in the oven and calls the police to say she’d gone out for some vegetables, only to discover her husband lying bludgeoned on the floor. And when the officers arrive, she does her best to put them at ease: “Well,” she said. “Here you all are, and good friends of dear Patrick’s too, and helping to catch the man who killed him. You must be terrible hungry by now … and I know Patrick would never forgive me, God bless his soul, if I allowed you to remain in his house without offering you decent hospitality.” The story ends with the officers, fully confident that they’ll find the murder weapon, devouring a delicious leg of lamb.Denouements like this were Dahl’s bread and butter. As with the domestic setting of Lamb to the Slaughter, stories with surprise endings can seem a little out-of-date.It’s a tribute to Dahl’s warped imagination how many of his tales still do end unexpectedly.And even when you can guess an ending, to read Dahl is to experience the delight of watching a naughty, misanthropic child at play.Roald Dahl’s Tales of the Unexpected is published by Penguin Books
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