Ethics Quiz: The Perfect Murder Assignment

lamb murder

“Ick” or ethics? This recurring question seems to be at the core of a controversy at Central Valley High School in Spokane, Washington. Ninth graders in a language arts class were instructed to compile the components of the “perfect murder.”

The assignment read, in part:

“Turn the following into real sentences and put them in a paragraph briefly explaining, ‘the perfect murder.’ Items should appear in your paragraph according to the order of importance. There are 10 ideas here, so if you remove one you have to add an idea of your own.

  1. It should be easy to arrange.
  2. It should leave no clues.
  3. There should be no noise.
  4. It should look like suicide.
  5. It should take place in a lonely, isolated place.
  6. It should not be cheap.
  7. No violence should be necessary.
  8. It should look like an accident.
  9. It should be quick.
  10. The murderer should have a good alibi.”

The project was preparation for studying the Roald Dahl short story, “Lamb to the Slaughter,” about a wife who ingeniously murders her husband. Predictably—why didn’t the teacher predict it, then?—parents went bonkers upon learning of the plan.

After many complaints, a Central Valley spokesperson released the following statement:

“On Friday, September 24, Central Valley High School administrative staff was made aware of an English activity given to a small group of students within a class, which caused concern for parents. The activity was not appropriate, was not approved nor was it sanctioned by CVHS or Central Valley School District, and is not part of our approved curriculum. It was addressed and the assignment was changed as soon as it was brought to the attention of the administration and an apology was sent to the entire class last Friday.”

Some stipulations are in order:

  • Parents should have been alerted to the assignment in advance. Not doing so is a massive failure of “ethics chess.”
  • The assignment was not very well constructed. Those “ten ideas” are a dog’s breakfast that do not necessarily advance the objective of a “perfect murder” at all. Why “quick”? Why should it not be cheap?
  • Handing out such an assignment to children must include the obligation to provide ethical context. Was the teacher in this instance capable of doing that, or trained to do it competently? How many high school teachers would be?

Your Ethics Alarms Ethics Quiz of the Day is…

Was giving 9th graders such an assignment irresponsible?

I confess; I would have loved getting an assignment to concoct the “perfect murder” as a 9th grader, and I had a sixth grade teacher whom I suspect would have given out such an assignment if she had thought of it. In the abstract, I see how it could be a rich and rewarding project. Planning a perfect murder is an excellent critical thinking exercise, and murder plots are a staple of literature and popular culture.

The story was the inspiration for a memorable episode of “Alfred Hitchcock Presents” the murderous wife bludgeons her husband to death with a frozen leg of lamb (“lamb to the slaughter,” get it?) and then serves the cooked and delicious murder weapon to the gullible detective investigating the crime.

23 thoughts on “Ethics Quiz: The Perfect Murder Assignment

    • Just re-watched “Michael Clayton,” in which a defense lawyer gone rogue and about to blow the whistle on his polluter/poisoner client corp is murdered. The scene is elaborately staged as a suicide. As two members of the firm discuss the event, they note that the police said that it had all the marks of suicide, but since the dead lawyer didn’t leave a note (and would memorialize everything in writing), “it must have been an accident.” This ambiguity lead Michael Clayton (George Clooney) to suspect that it was really a murder.

      • “The scene is elaborately staged as a suicide.”

        Brings to mind the arguably creative plot to off Myra Bruhl (Dyan Cannon) by her husband Sidney (Michael Caine) and Christopher Reeves’ Clifford Anderson, in order to facilitate their… know, in Deathtrap.

        Speaking of Michael Caine and creatively planned murders, he hits the trifecta in the très cheesy A Shock To the System.

        • Then there is the plot in “Sleuth”—both versions with Michael Caine— and my favorite, the cult “The Last of Sheila,” plotted by the weird writing duo of Anthony Perkins and Stephen Sondheim. Hitchcock had several “perfect murder” movies, including “Strangers on a Train” and “Dial M for Murder.”

  1. Roald Dahl ethics:

    A college friend’s younger sister went absolutely nuts over “Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.” As I recall, “Sally” saw the movie something like seven times in the theater (this was in the early ‘seventies). Her salesman father met and chatted up Roald Dahl on a flight and, lo and behold, convinced him to have lunch with Sally, then a freshman at Vassar. On the appointed day, Sally took the train down to the City and had her long awaited audience and lunch with the great writer (then married to Patricia Neal) who, upon completing his lunch, propositioned her.

  2. I think it might have appeared a bit more palatable in the context of putting together a murder mystery story and explaining how the murder was done, what was done to hide the fact that it was a murder, and what clues were plausibly left that would lead the detective to solve the crime. Even so, 9th grade is probably 2 years too early to be talking about an assignment like that.

    I know I talked about a possible murder here at one point in the context of getting rid of someone who was disliked. I think it might work better in the setting of getting rid of someone who saw or heard the wrong thing or a partner in a business enterprise who discovered corrupt doings or that he was being cheated. The thought was to invite the person out to a family ski lodge, way the hell up in the mountains, in the off season, to “straighten things out” or “talk this over.” Once he is there, he is poisoned or bludgeoned to death, to avoid a lot of blood. Then, the killers raise up one of the slabs in the wine cellar, dump the body, tightly wrapped in plastic to prevent the smell of putrefaction escaping, beneath it, replace the slab, lock the wine cellar, lock the main cellar, wipe everything down, lock the place, then leave quietly one at a time, agreeing never to talk about this again. The place is going to stand empty until after Thanksgiving, when the caretaker is going to come to get it ready for the ski season, and he might not even bother going into the cellar.

    However, our killers made a few mistakes. First of all, one of them stopped for gas on the way out, and so was seen by the attendant and the surveillance camera. Second, another one went on a toll road, creating a record, placing him in the area. This is enough to send the detectives to the lodge. From there will they find anything? Fibers that show someone was dragged? Traces of blood the killers thought they’d cleaned up? A fingerprint that they missed wiping away? Disturbed dust that points them to the fact someone went down the cellar? If they get there will they notice the chipped cement or something else that will tip them off the slab was moved? Or will they miss one or more of these clues, conclude this is a dead end, and say “thanks for your cooperation, if you hear from him, let us know?”

  3. I dunno. I am on the fence with this one. I agree that the parents should have been advised ahead of time, but I think that a creative writing experiment/assignment is not constrained by general rules. Perhaps 9th graders may not be mature enough to handle the issue, and the school setting is problematic, but many 9th graders have read and seen some pretty heavy stuff (“Harry Potter” and the chronicles of “Percy Jackson” come to mind, as do the “The Lord of the Rings” books) but having a 17 year old I can attest that 9th graders are not wilting flowers and usually think these kind of assignments are pretty fun.


  4. It’s not an easy call for me. I see the problem, obviously — do we really want our children thinking about how to do a murder, much less a “perfect” one? Or any crime for that matter? I’m thinking no.

    At the same time, it is a provocative exercise in critical thinking, a concept that doesn’t get near enough play these days. It isn’t as if a nine-year old hasn’t been exposed to this sort of thing via television and the Internet.

    But I do think it would require parental approval in advance. Some parents might not allow their kids at that age to be exposed to this type of entertainment content. I know some parents like that (or who were when they were raising their kids).

    So in sum, my verdict would have to be “unethical,” as the school did not seek parental input, and apparently didn’t authorize the subject matter in question. That’s pretty much de facto unethical.

    • I’m not sure it’s fair to suggest that 9th graders not be exposed To that kind of entertainment content (as opposed to the specific assignment.) Murder is a literary device, they’re going to encounter it in a huge number of classical works that any high school should be making them familiar with, from Shakespeare to Poe to Doyle to Fitzgerald.

      Parents shouldn’t expect a high school English class to avoid murder as a subject, even if they have qualms with whether a specific work is worthy or whether a specific assignment is appropriate.

      On the quiz itself, I think the assignment is fine, though I think the teacher should have included a note to parents with a mini-reading guide to the short story in question to show how it relates and what the literary value of the story is, since it’s not an obvious one.

      But if it was related to a Sherlock Holmes story, I wouldn’t blink. The story would be obviously appropriate and the connection to the subject equally obvious.

  5. I think this is a perfectly acceptable assignment for a writing class. By that age students have read (or should have) stories where a murder investigation is a key element to the plot. Having them try the other side, creating that element in their own writing is a legitimate exercise. For ninth graders this should not be a particularly taxing assignment, and a teacher for that grade should have no trouble providing guidance and feedback to the students.

    My only caveat would be that we know teachers are of varying quality, but this is not even a particularly hard assignment to work on and grade.

  6. It’s a little concerning that we have at least one person teaching English in this country who does not understand what simple concepts like “violence” mean. By definition, murder is violence.

    This is the caliber of people we have teaching our kids, and we wonder why our society is steadily degenerating.

    • Yeah, they might have meant it should not be necessary to physically struggle with the victim, but that’s not what they said.

      Likewise, the assignment said, “Turn the following ideas into real sentences…” but they’re already real sentences. They’re not sentence fragments. Did the teacher mean to turn them into concrete ideas, such as, “there will be no noise because X”? It should not be difficult for a teacher to phrase things clearly and precisely.

      What even is a “perfect crime”? Plenty of people get away with crimes every day. Is it defined by no one ever suspecting you, or no one knowing a crime was committed in the first place?

      It might have been better to contextualize the assignment as creating a murder mystery, maybe set before video cameras and the internet so that they don’t end up figuring out ways of subverting modern crime investigation techniques. Then they can figure out whether it really has to be noiseless if it’s supposed to look like an accident anyway, et cetera.

      (They could have gone with an aristocratic jewel thief as well. That sets up a tricky mystery, but the emotional stakes are pretty low because it’s just one decadent rich person stealing from another.) ​

  7. The assignment was not very well constructed. Those “ten ideas” are a dog’s breakfast that do not necessarily advance the objective of a “perfect murder” at all. Why “quick”? Why should it not be cheap?

    The assignment does allow the student to substitute phrases, so non-applicable ones could be removed. Indeed, I’d be impressed if my students took the imitative to remove conflicting statements from they’re theory.

    I was in the 5th grade when the Columbine shootings occurred. Everyone in my class was pissed off we weren’t allowed to play cops and robbers anymore, because finger guns were insensitive. I stand by my annoyance to this day.

    The perfect murder assignment is awesome, and I would have loved it to. It is also politically untenable today, so it was incompetently planned and thus unethical on those grounds alone. In a perfect world, the assignment should be fine (however, in schools with gang violence/students getting shot, a “planning the perfect murder” assignment is in poor taste in absolute terms. Some vocational skills should be left to other venues).

  8. The more I think about this, and see how incompetently the assignment is constructed, the more convinced I am that this teacher is just fishing for ideas. Otherwise, why include such features as “it must be cheap” and “easy to arrange”? If it’s just a mental exercise, can’t we just imagine that the killer has at least some resources? Sounds like she’s lazy and on a budget.

    I’m just saying, if her husband turns up missing, or dying in a way that looks like a suicide *and* an accident at the same time, this assignment should be brought to the attention of the detective on the case.

  9. The police use carbon disulfide to extract arson accelerants for analysis. Carbon disulfide is flammable. If you use carbon disulfide as the accelerant, it will not be detected because it was also added to the evidence on purpose in the lab (and so discounted).

    That is the kind of ‘perfect crime’ assignment I would like to see. An assignment that looks for the limitations of the analysis techniques used to analyze crimes is a useful assignment indeed. The assignment above was useless because of the multitude of pointless (and maybe conflicting) requirements. You can’t put that many restrictions on creativity. I can see putting a realism requirement on it (can’t cost over $100,000 to implement and can’t require the invention of new technology) just to keep people from using spaceships or requiring the development of time machines.

    • Carbon disulphide can also be used for arson in other ways, e.g. as a solvent for white phosphorus, say on strips of celluloid. When it evaporates after a delay, it leaves the phosphorus in a finely divided form that ignites spontaneously and sets the substrate on fire (supposing that to have been chosen to be inflammable, like strips of celluloid), with the carbon disulphide no longer present in a concentration that makes much difference. I believe that may have been the basis for the nineteenth century “Fenian Fire”, as that had those properties.

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