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The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York Hardcover – February 18, 2010
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The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York
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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.