The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York (Thorndike Crime Scene) by Deborah Blum

The Poisoner's HandbookReviewed by Teri Davis

No, I hope I never need the information in this book. The Poisoner’s Handbook is really the development of forensic science from the view point of New York City’s medical examiner, Charles Norris, toxicologist, Alexander Gettler and many others at the beginning of the twentieth century. In many respects, this book is the evolution of science as the processes for identifying chemicals with humans was developing. As our society became more industrialized, more poisons were created and either misused accidentally or purposefully. Unfortunately, few people before these scientists really studied these poisons and knew how to identify and differentiate each.

Parallel to the actual poisons is the history of famous cases where the poisons were found or suspected and how the investigators discovered what poison what used. With viewing the cases first through law enforcement and then through the scientific evidence was fascinating. Before this time, even securing a crime scene was not standard procedure.

The sections regarding prohibition were fascinating and greatly educational in literally understanding this time period. To me, it is amazing the during the time of Prohibition, there were more alcohol related deaths. Being that alcohol was illegal, the cheaply made forms from industry or distillation were not regulated in any manner creating an environment for alternate types.
Each poison is a chapter explaining the history and the people who became famously identified with each poison. From chloroform, wood alcohol, cyanide, arsenic, mercury, carbon monoxide, methyl alcohol, radium, ethyl alcohol, nicotine, aconite, silver and thallium, all of these were easy to obtain and use.

The author Deborah Blum has won a Pulitzer Prize for her journalism.

What is special about this non-fiction novel is how easily it reads. With each of the poisons, the stories of real people and their misadventures with their choice of poison and the challenges of the chemical investigators all blend into a developing science surrounding the crime as a mystery.
There are some technical errors in the science section of this book. I view these as acceptable because this is not an instruction book about how to poison someone but a procedural development of toxicology in forensic science. Also to catch these scientific inaccuracies, a chemist would have needed to be consulted, not a book editor.

The Poisoner’s Handbook is not for the queasy folks. The testing process and the crimes can be blunt and at times gory. Unfortunately, these early scientists went through questionable ethical situations to develop their factual information. That’s reality. Their past allows for the science success of today.

For those who enjoy non-fiction that reads like fiction or just a good mystery, The Poisoner’s Handbook is for you.

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