Book Review: The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah Blum
Summary taken from Goodreads:
Deborah Blum, writing with the high style and skill for suspense that is characteristic of the very best mystery fiction, shares the untold story of how poison rocked Jazz Age New York City. In The Poisoner's HandbookBlum draws from highly original research to track the fascinating, perilous days when a pair of forensic scientists began their trailblazing chemical detective work, fighting to end an era when untraceable poisons offered an easy path to the perfect crime.
Drama unfolds case by case as the heroes of The Poisoner's Handbook—chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler—investigate a family mysteriously stricken bald, Barnum and Bailey's Famous Blue Man, factory workers with crumbling bones, a diner serving poisoned pies, and many others. Each case presents a deadly new puzzle and Norris and Gettler work with a creativity that rivals that of the most imaginative murderer, creating revolutionary experiments to tease out even the wiliest compounds from human tissue. Yet in the tricky game of toxins, even science can't always be trusted, as proven when one of Gettler's experiments erroneously sets free a suburban housewife later nicknamed "America's Lucretia Borgia" to continue her nefarious work.
From the vantage of Norris and Gettler's laboratory in the infamous Bellevue Hospital it becomes clear that killers aren't the only toxic threat to New Yorkers. Modern life has created a kind of poison playground, and danger lurks around every corner. Automobiles choke the city streets with carbon monoxide; potent compounds, such as morphine, can be found on store shelves in products ranging from pesticides to cosmetics. Prohibition incites a chemist's war between bootleggers and government chemists while in Gotham's crowded speakeasies each round of cocktails becomes a game of Russian roulette. Norris and Gettler triumph over seemingly unbeatable odds to become the pioneers of forensic chemistry and the gatekeepers of justice during a remarkably deadly time. A beguiling concoction that is equal parts true crime, twentieth-century history, and science thriller, The Poisoner's Handbook is a page-turning account of a forgotten New York.
Wow, that's a really long pitch!
Okay so I don't usually review nonfiction...but when I do, I post long pitches!
Whispers to self: *No one else finds that funny*
So bad jokes aside, I've been in a non-fiction reading habit. Not exactly sure what reason, but I do know that I saw this book a couple months ago in my university library while I was shelving books. I've been fascinated by the Jazz Age for a long time now and so of course when I saw the title, I was instantly intrigued.
The book follows the careers of Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler, two of the people who made forensic chemistry and justice into the huge thing it is now. The murders featured in this book are stories that I would expect to see on a CSI show and are exciting and puzzling they would be on air.
The writing style of the book was easy to follow and not hard to read. Some nonfiction tends to read like a textbook and drags on, but not this! Each chapter followed our heroes chronologically but centered around a different poison. I'm curious on why the author chose those specific poisons and not others.
For those who aren't familiar with chemistry like I am, have no fear, the author's descriptions of chemical compounds were not that perplexing and were fairly easy to understand. Granted, I didn't really understand most of them, but they weren't horrible to read.
I learned a couple cool things from this book, For example, how different poisons affect the body and how you can tell if someone's been poisoned or not. I also learned that during Prohibition, the U,S government went so far as to poison illegal alcohol hoping that it would scare bootleggers and drinkers off. Alas, people are not that smart and literary drank themselves to death. It was a fascinating, dark side of U.S history I hadn't heard of before.
Some negative reviews I've heard often rate the book lower on the obnoxiously long title "The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York" and while I admit it is a pain, its also a trend on nonfiction right now and authors often don't have control over what their book is renamed after agreeing to be published. Another thing is that I think it might be a way to distinguish the book from fiction and to give readers an idea of what its about (although the titles themselves should be that good, and shouldn't have to rely on subtitles).
I read this book fairly quickly and enjoyed it. I thought it was well researched and a fascinating read. There were some style points I'd take off and perhaps some of the examples got to be a little bit too much, but nevertheless, it was a great read.
I'd recommend this book to anyone interested in Jazz Age New York, Prohibition, chemistry, medical issues, and the legal system.
The Book's Goodreads page
Deborah Blum's Goodreads page