The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York Reprint Edition
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“The Poisoner’s Handbook is an inventive history that, like arsenic, mixed into blackberry pie, goes down with ease.”—The New York Times Book Review
“Deborah Blum has not lost the skills of good storytelling she honed as a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist.” —Chicago Sun-Times
“Reads like science fiction, complete with suspense, mystery and foolhardy guys in lab coats tipping test tubes of mysterious chemicals into their own mouths.” -- NPR: What We're Reading
“Fans of those TV forensic shows or of novels by Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs or Jefferson Bass will find plenty to satisfy their appetites here.” —The Washington Post
“Blum’s combination of chemistry and crime fiction creates a vicious, page-turning story that reads more like Raymond Chandler than Madame Curie.”—The New York Observer
“The Poisoner's Handbook opens one riveting murder case after another in this chronicle of Jazz Age chemical crimes where the real-life twists and turns are as startling as anything in fiction. Deborah Blum turns us all into forensic detectives by the end of this expertly written, dramatic page-turner that will transform the way you think about the power of science to threaten and save our lives.”—Matthew Pearl, author of The Technologists and The Dante Club
“With the pacing and rich characterization of a first-rate suspense novelist, Blum makes science accessible and fascinating.” —Publishers Weekly (starred review)
About the Author
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The title "Poisoner's Handbook" belies the book's true focus, the two amazing men at the center of each of the public histories of the poisons Blum writes about: chloroform, arsenic, cyanide, mercury, carbon monoxide, radium, ethyl and methyl alcohols, and thallium.
Charles Norris, first Chief Medical Examiner of NYC, and his chief toxicologist, Alexander Gettler were, according to Blum, almost solely responsible for modernizing forensic science in the United States. Before Norris' appointment, the office of coroner required no medical training, and death certificates were often incomplete or falsified for bribes if they were filled out at all. Norris and Gettler spent their careers making forensics a rigorous study, and as if that weren't enough, were hugely influential crusaders for regulation of toxic substances, and for the repeal of Prohibition, which engendered a slew of deadly bootleg concoctions, including the industrial wood grain alcohol that the government endeavored to make more poisonous than it already was, knowing that it would be imbibed by prohibition breakers.
Although the writing was snappy and fast-faced, Blum had little work to do to create drama; Norris and Gettler's heroic efforts to identify the effects of these poisons on the body in many cases for the very first time, and the huge failure that was the Prohibition largely did her work for her. I was riveted. I'm not sure why there isn't yet a forensic TV drama about the two men and the poisons they studied.
Blum’s book is easy to read (though it assumes an intelligent reader), the chemistry is never overwhelming, and the two gentlemen that she chose to follow throughout the chemical boom of the Roaring 20’s led fascinating jobs filled with mystery, murder, death, ground brains and Bunsen burners. And at under 300 pages, it is just the right length.
I often use non-fiction books such as this to cleanse my palate (as it were) if I’ve had a bit too much fantasy and SciFi. This book did the trick.
Also, reading the anecdotes in this book makes me want to quit my job and write murder mysteries because there are just so many sneaky ways of killing people! Fortunately, all y’all are safe - I very nearly failed junior Chemistry in high school, and sometimes, even measuring out teaspoons of coffee grounds in too much chemistry for me. I guess I’ll need to hire an evil genius assistant...
The book is not just about crime or homicidal maniacs who use poison as their weapon of choice. It is also about changing technologies, corporate greed, and egregious misuse of chemical compounds that borders on being comical to the modern reader. (Radium health tonics. Blearghhh.)
The book is well written (the crisp, non-academic writing is very refreshing - unlike the radium health tonics) and does not get overly bogged down in scientific terms. The author provides enough medical and scientific background to be relevant, but she presents it in layman's terms. I love reading about the periodic table, but since I am not a scientist, I find that sometimes I get lost when there is too much detail. That is not the case here. I highly recommend this book.
Top international reviews
The American Experience documentary was based on this book and the author was one of those interviewed in the program. The documentary was very interesting, so I bought the book after watching the documentary.
This is a well written popular history of the development of the New York City Medical Examiner's Office in the early 20th century with particular emphasis on the 1920s and early 1930s, up to the repeal of Prohibition.
The author focuses on Doctors Norris and Gettler, the Medical Examiner's Office chief pathologist and head toxicologist respectively, and details the many political battles between the New York City Mayor's office and the Medical Examiner's Office along with fascinating details of the Medical Examiner's investigations into crime, industrial accidents, working conditions which lead to the deaths of workers and other very interesting subjects.
Apart from the criminal investigations, this book also goes into the New York Medical Examiners' Office investigation of several cases of industrial and workplace incidents. In those pre-Workers Compensation Board times, these New York cases were dealt with by the NY Medical Examiners' Office and the investigation of those cases makes interesting reading. Anyone interested in workplace health and safety issues should find the book's descriptions of these cases to be very informative reading.
The author's bio in the book says she is a science writer but several scientists have left some fairly scathing critiques on Amazon's US site about the flawed scientific details throughout the book. I found the book very interesting but these critiques raise some concerns about the author's credibility and the credibility of the history in the book.
I'm no scientist so I can't respond knowledgeably to their critiques. But I've done a quick check (I emphasize "quick" check; I haven't done any major fact checking here)on some of the historical details in the book and the history seems accurate enough based on a few quick checks on some major details.
This book is aimed at a more general audience. The author writes well and, despite the major critiques of the book's scientific details written on Amazon's US site by scientists, the historical information in the book is very interesting throughout.
Overall, a worthwhile book, although the scientists' critiques mentioned above create some doubt about the book's credibility on scientific details.