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

Crime Classics, a 1953 CBS ‘true crime’ radio series, seems to be something of a slap in the face to audiences’ sense of identification and notions of self-importance, presenting a vision of a callous and petty world where the individual matters little, and their thoughts and feelings matter less.

Xerxes, King of Persia, ready to invade Greece, set a throne of white marble on a hill on the coast of Abydos and sat down to overlook his army assembled before him. Seeing the multitudes stretched along the shore, and ships cluttering the Hellespont, he declared himself: 'happy'. Then, as ancient kings are wont to do, he wept.

Herodotus reports that this sudden change was witnessed by Artabanus, his uncle. "How different, sire, is what thou art now doing, from what thou didst a little while ago," Artabanus said (as translated by George Rawlinson).

Xerxes replied: "There came upon me, a sudden pity when I thought of the shortness of man's life, and considered that of all this host, so numerous as it is, not one will be alive when a hundred years are gone by".

That was 480 BC. By all accounts, Xerxes' estimate was correct.

Now, as then, the indifference of history towards those that populate it, and the transience and potential pointlessness of existence aren't exactly topics for a peppy discussion. Artabanus tried to console Xerxes, reminding him that life was so frequently awful that looming death was really more of a positive than a negative. To that, Xerxes replied that they should probably just forget he ever brought it up in the first place.

It's also not a topic that makes for much of a marketing campaign, so doesn't really seem to pop up as a dominant feature in modern pop culture too often. When it does, it's usually only to offer us a 'joys of life' antidote: The NeverEnding Story (1984) does so with incredible charm, equating a young boy's emotional withdrawal after the death of his mother with a fantasy realm's descent into the destructive void of 'The Nothing'; and the oft-criticised but underrated sixth season of Buffy the Vampire Slayer (just about the only redeeming feature of the show's last few years) flirts with notions of worldly irrelevance and the allure of death's emptiness (before ending up somewhere else entirely).

Of course, it's not exactly easy to tell a story when your underlying point is that none of it matters anyway, and despite modern culture's self-diagnosis of hyper-sophistication and ideological liberation, current audiences are really more attuned to dull corporate solipsism than nihilism. Funny how 'born special' birthright nonsense has stopped being a ridiculously hokey cliché and is now a key part of a mainstream understanding of heroism and identity. ('Gee, that Harry Potter kid was born special and is the most important guy in the universe. He really reminds me of me.') It's all about 'YOU!' those endless blockbusters seem to shout at their carefully determined target demographics, like multimillion dollar versions of those books parents order where they stick your kid's name in a pre-written story. [As in blockbusters like the feeble-minded Transformers (2007), which expects us to be impressed -- and takes itself very seriously -- when giant mega space robots come to Earth to tell a dumbass 'regular guy' (aka key consumer) that the the fate of the universe rests on his shoulders.]

Crime Classics, a 1953 CBS 'true crime' radio series, seems to be something of a slap in the face to audiences' sense of identification and notions of self-importance of any kind, presenting a vision of a callous and petty world where the individual matters little, and their thoughts and feelings matter less, caught up in a flow of history that is always bigger than they are, and with little more than a sardonic quip offered to the audience by way of compensation.

While most genres are defined by uniformity (then and today), Crime Classics allows the listener to engage with a different kind of tone entirely, a half-hour slice of a different attitude and outlook, somewhat akin to Artabanus' fatalism. As such, it's one of the treasures of Old Time Radio and, in bypassing the personal-relevance pandering and rational understanding of the unfolding of history that underlies so much of mainstream culture, is perhaps not only the least-dated of Old Time Radio broadcasts, but also still challenges many of the expectations we have of drama in a ideologically sanitised corporate-culture environment.

Based on subject alone, Crime Classics is already interesting listening, drawing its stories from famous crimes and murders 'taken from the records and newspapers of every land from every time'. The series begins with 'The Crime of Bathsheba Spooner', the story of the first woman to be executed under American, rather than British, rule (which took place in 1778), and goes on to cover other events from the relatively obscure (such as the 1886 death of Thomas Barlett, or the 1857 murder trial of Madeleine Smith) to the well-known (Lizzie Borden, Billy the Kid, Blackbeard) to the historically significant (Abraham Lincoln, Nero, Julius Caesar) to a surprising jaunt into the mythical (King Arthur).

While there are alterations and inaccuracies, Crime Classics often keeps surprisingly close to the core or anecdotal details, drawing its drama almost solely from 'the record' rather than intellectual or emotional interpretation or perspective. Its drama is not just based on the details, but on the dispassionate details. Crime Classics offers neither sense nor psychology in examining the past, but lets its terrible events play out without adornment, as though they were simply basic machinations of human functionality. We are not asked to understand the characters, and the characters make no attempts to understand themselves; their motivations usually seem to be nothing more than simple, selfish and passing urges.

When the characters communicate, it's usually in simple statements and clipped phrases, describing only the immediacy of the circumstances in front of them; they speak around each other, but not to each other, self-enclosed and oblivious to the world around them. Often it suggests the barely-human dialogue of a caveman movie, but nothing about Crime Classics proposes that we are looking at anything than can be dismissed as prehistoric, or even truly of the past.

In many ways, it's one of the better examples of Dramatic or Literary Naturalism (not to be confused with Realism), simultaneously blunt but empty, its characters trapped and mangled by both the world around them and their own inability to make any real sense of it. As in Emile Zola, we seem to be witnessing the 'human animal', where character and motivation are lost beneath the inexplicable and primal impulses of whatever propels us in place of a soul. In Crime Classics, whether the crime is large or small, humanity seems to have only two modes of existence: selfish desire, and selfish disgust. As in Freud, both attraction and repulsion are really just part of the same eternal momentum.

The approach allows for little in the way of higher ideals. In 'Twenty-Three Knives Against Caesar', Brutus is endowed with none of the nobility that makes him one of Shakespeare's most engaging characters. We simply watch Caesar's arrogance emerge, and the reprisal it provokes. Typical of the series, it views its key event from a quiet distance: in its final scene, we hear the voice of the 'man on the street' (that most mishandled voice in culture, new or old). One man comments on Caesar's death, surprised. The other shrugs off the whole affair -- "Why not, you think he was a god or something?" -- then heads home because he has his own problems to deal with.

"When beggars die, there are no comets seen", says Shaespeare's Calpurnia, wife of Caesar, "the heavens themselves blaze forth the death of princes". In Crime Classics comets blaze for no one, having more in common with Hamlet's iconoclastic notion that "A man may fish with the worm that hath eat of a king, and eat of the fish that hath fed of that worm".

Lincoln's assassination is perhaps presented with a little more reverence, but, if so, only slightly, more due to a lack of humour ('too soon?') than any newfound awe for history's tragedies. It's still presented flatly and dismissively as inevitable -- not because of the prophetic dream that opens it (complete with horrible wailing that always sends shivers down my spine) -- but simply because there was no reason to think that it would be immune from the usual meaningless flow of pointless violence, and with John Parker, Lincoln's guard, "choking down another tumbler of whiskey, drinking his way into history's oblivion".

For the assassination, we simply hear John Wilkes Booth's steps, plenty of them, all the way to the box with the sound of 'Our American Cousin' on the stage growing gradually louder. Then a gunshot. Then a return to the horrible wailing of a funeral from the dream that opened the show (and even Lincoln's dream of his own death is a part of the historical record rather than a dramatic addition). There's nothing more to say, it seems, so we're simply told about the crime we'll hear next week.

Even King Arthur, that legendary figure of nobility and moderation fares no better. As narrator Thomas Hyland summarises in 'The Triangle on the Round Table': "King Arthur is going into a battle against a friend of his. Four thousand men will be killed. Over a woman. Which is known as chivalry". Arthur himself is as much of a grunting and inarticulate brute as any of the show's ne'er-do-wells.

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