Sunday 19 January 2014

Ian Fleming's Tale of the Unexpected

A recent visit to the Roald Dahl Museum in Great Missenden, Buckinghamshire, reminded me of the varied connections between Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming. There was the obvious, of course: a small panel presented a few facts about Dahl's experience writing the screenplay of You Only Live Twice, and a press of a button on an interactive display brought up an image of a page from Dahl's handwritten script for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. Then there was some information about Dahl's role in the Second World War as Assistant Air Attaché at the British Embassy in Washington, where he was drawn into intelligence work and was introduced to Fleming; the two would become firm friends.

A plastic model of a leg of lamb inside a drawer revealed another connection. The model represented one of Dahl's earliest short stories, 'Lamb to the Slaughter', which was first published by Alfred A Knopf in 1953 in the short story collection, Someone Like You. In the story, a woman, Mary Maloney, kills her husband, who is about to leave her, with a frozen leg of lamb. She cooks the lamb and serves it to the investigating police officers, who are searching in vain for the murder weapon. “Get the weapon, and you've got the man,” Sergeant Noonan tells Mary. The story was filmed twice, first for an episode of Alfred Hitchcock Presents in 1958, then in 1979 for an episode of Tales of the Unexpected for ITV in Britain.


In his introduction to the Tales of the Unexpected adaptation, Roald Dahl tells the audience that the Ian Fleming was responsible for the story, which had come about during dinner they had together one weekend in Vermont. The roast lamb they had been eating had been very dry and tough, and Fleming remarked that the meat must have been in the deep freeze for 10 years. He suggested that whoever was responsible (the cook, maybe – the recording is a little unclear) should be shot, but Dahl suggested that there must be a more interesting punishment. The story was generated in the subsequent discussion.

Dahl doesn't tell us when this conversation took place, but sometime in the early 1950s is most likely, possibly the summer of 1951. Dahl had moved to New York in that year, and since 1950, Fleming spent almost every summer in Vermont, staying at Black Hole Hollow Farm, a property owned by Marie-Josephene Hartford, the wife of Ivar Bryce, Ivar Bryce being a close friend of both Fleming and Dahl. According to Andrew Lycett, however, Fleming had the idea of the deadly frozen leg of lamb for a while before he dined with Dahl, and indeed had literary ambitions of his own with regard to its use; Fleming revealed (in ?1948/9) to Peter Quennell that he was planning to write a thriller based on it.

Whatever the sequence of events, the story 'Lamb to the Slaughter' contains some essential memes that originated with Ian Fleming, and is therefore of interest to students of Fleming's writing. The story also reveals Fleming's fascination with crime and crime fiction, which would resurface periodically with, for example, his interest in American mobster Lucky Luciano, and the more crime-orientated plots of The Spy Who Loved Me and Diamonds Are Forever.

Incidentally, the title story in Fleming's first short story collection, For Your Eyes Only, is set in Vermont and features an estate called Echo Lake, which was based on Black Hole Hollow Farm. Other stories in the collection vary in style, notably 'Quantum of Solace', which is Fleming's homage to Somerset Maugham. In the same vein, 'The Hildebrand Rarity' offers some memetic connections with Dahl's writing – the ironic manner of the murder committed and the twist in the tale – and could also be considered a homage. That said, given the origin of 'Lamb to the Slaughter', those qualities might just as appropriately be considered Fleming-esque.

Read an update of this story and further information about the origin of 'Lamb to the Slaughter' in my article on the connections between Roald Dahl and Ian Fleming in MI6 Confidential issue 30.


Lycett, A, 1995 Ian Fleming: The Man Behind James Bond, Turner
Treglown, J, 1994 Roald Dahl: A Biography, Faber and Faber


  1. Well written piece. Thanks for sharing that with us. I had plans to write something for my blog on this at some point as I had noticed those less remarked upon connections between Ian Fleming and Roald Dahl myself. I may still write that up - I had a few other different things to say, too. I'm a huge fan of Tales of the Unexpected and Dahl's blackly comic and moral adult short stories, too.

    1. Thanks! Glad you liked the article. You should certainly write something yourself. There's a rich seam of material about the connection between Dahl and Fleming, and I only scratched the surface.

  2. Fleming admired Dahl's writing very much - even shared the same girlfriend!

    1. Fascinating factoid there,! Which girlfriend was that, pray tell?


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