The Seven-Layered Arsenic Cake of Madame LaFarge and Other Crime Classics

by Kit MacFarlane

30 June 2010


Hardly a Straightforward 'Tongue in Cheek' Portrayal of Crime Stories

Much of Crime Classics’ oddly distanced tone comes from this narration by Thomas Hyland, “connoisseur of crime, student of violence, and teller of murders” (a fictional persona portrayed by Lou Merrill), who narrates the proceedings with an underplayed wit and sardonically distanced lilt. Episode titles sum up the approach: ‘The Dread Events Surrounding Mr Thrower’s Hammer’, ‘The Axe and the Droot Family; How They Fared’, ‘The Alsop Family; How It Diminished and Grew Again’, ‘The Hangman and William Palmer. Who Won?’, ‘John Hayes; His Head… and How They Were Parted’, ‘John and Judith. Their Crime, and Why They Didn’t Get To Enjoy It’, and so on. Hyland’s narration follows the same tone: “Two people who wanted to be happy, so they killed his wife” is Hyland’s introduction to ‘John and Judith’.

The meaningless whims of tragedy and the social compulsion to go out and buy something new and shiny.

Funny as it consistently is, Crime Classics can’t simply been seen as a straightforward ‘tongue in cheek’ portrayal of crime stories, as it is often described. The sly superior wit of the narration only accentuates the harshness and emptiness of the events so bluntly portrayed. The approach also allows for an intense economy: the clipped, animalistic dialogue of the characters, along with Hyland’s dismissive wit, allows for sound effects to carry much of the drama, as with John Wilkes Booth’s footsteps, or the triple hanging that closes ‘The Crime of Bathsheba Spooner’.

“Listen…” Hyland suggests as each episode begins, letting a sound effect establish the scene for the listener. When the brutal events arrive, Hyland is no more emotive or engaged. The Lizzie Borden murders are presented as a simple ‘whack’ sound effect, followed by Hyland dryly naming the victim of the blow. (The Lizzie Borden story, ‘The Bloody, Bloody Banks of Fall River’, like many other episodes, establishes the stifling environment of the time for women extremely effectively—albeit with the usual casual disinterest.)

Added to this precise soundscape is the careful underscoring of Bernard Herrmann, one of the great film, TV and radio composers, and who deserves more than the single sentence I have for him here.

Each story is so detailed, carefully directed (by producer Elliott Lewis), written (by Morton Fine and David Friedkin) and performed (Betty Harford is a particular favourite of the regular cast), and wryly dour that it’s hard to pick a definitive episode. One episode does, however, stand out from the rest, even if not for the usual reasons. Perhaps unsurprisingly, this amusing but intensely harsh series was a ‘sustaining program’, meaning that it wasn’t supported by an individual sponsor but by the network itself. As the Museum of Broadcast Communications describes it: “Sustaining programming was deemed to be important, because it helped the station to maintain a balance in program content and provided time for programs not appropriate for sponsorship, programs serving minority interests or tastes, and non-profit and experimental programs”. In other words, freed from an obligation to ‘sell’, it could potentially be ‘good’ (well, perhaps; but it’s all moot as that responsibility has been all but forgotten).

Still, somehow one episode (in Retro Remote’s collection, in any case), ‘The Seven-Layered Arsenic Cake of Madame LaFarge’, carries a sponsorship message—before, during, and after—and it’s an odd experience. “Crime Classics, brought to you by Plymouth”, we’re chirpily told, then reminded that “tomorrow is the day for your first look at the big, bright, beautiful, new ‘54 Plymouth!” Then to Thomas Hyland, who talks us through the sound of a cake being made, calmly drawing our attention to the final ingredient being added: “You didn’t hear anything because it was only a smidgen. And smidgens don’t make any noise. Not even a smidgen of arsenic; which that was. The noise comes later”.

What follows is that subtly brutal line, we’re reminded that “tomorrow’s the day!”; don’t forget to come see that new ‘54 Plymouth! Then back to Crime Classics, Bernard Herrmann’s ominous music setting the tone of ‘a season of unrest in Paris’ 1839. Hyland summarises the mood of the times: “people were either for things, or against things, or wanted them up, or forward, or guillotined”.

The story is that of Marie LaFarge, tried and convicted of murdering her husband by arsenic poisoning. The trial of 1840 notable for being primarily reliant on forensic toxicology: a problematic element that seemed to produce more questions than answers and kept the trial nicely dramatic for the papers. As one report of the time noted (quoted in ‘Fact and Fantasy in Chemical Analysis’ by W. A. Campbell): “Within two days the accused was declared innocent by the verdict of science, and now she is judged guilty by the verdict of the same science”. The editors’ preface to the jail-house ‘Memoirs of Madame LaFarge’ were equally unimpressed: “Are we to believe the science of yesterday, the science of to-day, or the science of to-morrow?”

Whether or not the husband had been poisoned by Madame LaFarge, poisoned by someone else, or had been poisoned at all, seemed to be issues that science had a few too many answers for. Guilty or not, the logical verdict seemed to be changing at a moment’s notice. Again from Madame LaFarge’s editors:

“Science rudely destroyed the decision of science. Two days after, science saw crime where she had seen innocence; poison where she had seen none… An affrighted audience passed abruptly from the conviction of innocence to the suspicion of guilt, and that same woman, so calm, and so radiant with the joy of an acquittal, suddenly precipitated from life into death”.

Given that the world of Crime Classics has little place for logic and consistency, or at least a healthy scepticism as to its existence in the proceedings of humanity, the scenario seems perfectly appropriate for its dour outlook and unblinking vision of injustice. Like so many of its victims and villains alike, Madame LaFarge is tossed about by the inconsistencies of history and humanity (and by the transience of social norms: “Husband to you” grunts her husband after their marriage, grabbing her in spite of her sexual uncertainty). The series compresses this universal flow into one detail, a cake sent to Madame LaFarge’s husband that may or may not have contained arsenic.

Though seemingly only a small part of the original history (as far as I can tell), Crime Classics uses this cake to fully portray the cruelly capricious nature of history and circumstance. Condemned by having sent the arsenic-laced ‘seven-layered cake’, this fact is suddenly reversed without warning as Madame LaFarge’s (ex-)Mother-in-Law suddenly remembers on her deathbed, for no specific reason whatsoever, that in fact, no such cake was sent. Unfortunately, this was 12 years after Madame LaFarge had been found guilty, sentenced to hard labour, and suffered ‘occasional exposures in the pillory’. “Something must be done!”, the ex-Mother-in-Law declared.

Thomas Hyland informs us, “something was done”:

“Marie LaFarge who had already served twelve years, had her sentence reduced to just five more years. Then she was sent to a home. Then she killed herself.”

With that, Thomas Hyland has nothing more to say, so we get a nice ‘54 Plymouth jingle to follow up that pointless tale of murder, despair and suicide; an oddly disarming, but perhaps perfectly apt, juxtaposition of the meaningless whims of tragedy and the social compulsion to go out and buy something new and shiny. The details may not match the history as closely as in some other episodes, but they sure don’t seem to have been changed to make the story any more palatable. It’s probably no surprise the following episode doesn’t start with a Plymouth jingle, nor do any others.

If nothing else, Crime Classics breaks away from the standard image of ‘50s crime dramas, refusing to present narratives of social cohesion and vigilant justice. Presumably the specifically historical focus of the show avoided some censorship issues (that’s just a guess), but in many ways it provides Crime Classics with its most disarming element: the sense that all the sufferings of history and the passions that drove them, no matter how small of great, are ultimately nothing more than pages in a file of a ‘connoisseur of crime’ and, but for that, are forgotten and gone.

Stanley Kubrick captured some of this ambivalence towards the relevance of the very narrative he was presenting with his 1975 Barry Lyndon, in which he took a small piece of text from the beginning of the source novel by William Thackeray, and placed it as a concluding text epilogue to his film. Tearing away all narrative value that might have emerged, the text simply notes: “It was in the reign of George III that the aforesaid personages lived and quarreled; good or bad, handsome or ugly, rich or poor they are all equal now”.

Like Kubrick’s Barry Lyndon, Crime Classics seems almost determined to end by undermining any personal investment and universal consistency that we might glean from its narrative, along with any sense that its tragedies were to any greater purpose or effect. It ends, persistently, on misery and injustice, or the brutal nature of legal justice’s hand, establishing transiency in place of relevance, futility in place of consistency, and injustice in place of reason. Then, it shrugs it off with a quip. After all, there’ll just be another example next week, “of every land from every time”.

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