Review: The Poisoner’s Handbook

by Kim on February 19, 2010 · 14 comments

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Title: The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York
Author: Deborah Blum
Genre: Literary Journalism
Year: 2010
Acquired: Given to me from the author for review
Rating: ★★★★☆

One Sentence Summary: In 1920s New York, two forensic scientists started a cat and mouse game with criminals to detect and prove the use of poison for murder.

One Sentence Review: Blum’s book combines murder, mystery, and easy-to-understand chemistry into an easy to read package.

One Additional Disclosure: Deborah Blum, the author of this book, is one of my professors here at Madison. I currently have a class with her, and I’m working with her on a project. I don’t think my personal relationship with Deb has impacted my impressions of the book, but you can be the judge of that.

Long Review: New York around the turn of the century was, by many accounts, not such a great way to live. Tammany Hall, the political powerhouse, basically ran the city. Bootleggers were getting ready for the potential start of Prohibition, creating alcoholic drinks that were likely to kill drinkers even in small doses. At the same time, the United States government was deliberately poisoning types of industrial alcohol to prevent bootleggers from using it at all. And murderers were getting more brave — the use of poison to kill was in the rise because there was no reliable way to prove the use. A scary time, to be sure.

In 1918 that was about to change. Dr. Charles Norris, at doctor from Bellevue, was hired as Manhattan’s first trained chief medical examiner and brought in a rock star staff to reform and advance the practice of forensic science. His biggest was Alexander Gettler, a dedicated toxicologist who worked to pioneer the science of detecting poison in the body.Working together, Norris and Gettler solved crimes ranging from poison pies to factory workers with disintegrating bones to the man who would die despite repeated attempts by his “friends” to kill him for little more than a few hundred dollars.

At first, the title of the book made me think this book was going to try and take on too many disconnected topics, but it ends up working really well. The story follows the chronology of Norris and Gettler’s time in the office, but each chapter is organized by a type of poison commonly used at the time — cyanide, chloroform, wood alcohol, methyl alcohol, arsenic, and others. The use of poison to organize each chapter keeps the story focused and helps keep the huge number of issues moving forward.

The book also works well because Norris and Gettler are such great central characters. Norris is a consummate civil servant, unwilling to back down in the face of combative mayors, pressure from political machines, and the overwhelming advantage poisoners had over forensic scientists. Gettler is a strong scientist, willing to go to almost any length to find the answers he needs. The book is filled with examples of Gettler mashing up brains or testing out decomposition rates with dead animals to see just what small doses of poison he could detect and prove killed a particular victim.

Going in, I was a little worried about the chemistry part of the book. I’m not a scientist, so most chemistry terms go over my head and I end up skipping over them. In this book, however, the descriptions were excellent. Blum has a talent for describing chemical reactions in terms that make sense to non-chemists. Here, for example, Blum describes the way cyanide get into the body and kills its victim:

Cyanide’s action is murderously precise. It attaches with stunning speed to protein molecules in the blood–called hemoglobins–that carry oxygen throughout the body. The poison is quicker at forming the attachment than oxygen and it binds more tightly to the hemoglobin. The blood is so tightly bound up with cyanide that the body is starved of oxygen. Cellular respiration suffers an instant “paralysis” as Gettler once put it, and the body begins to die. Enzyme production is stymied, electrical signals falter and as muscle cells and nerve cells explosively fail, body-rattling convulsions frequently result.

I’m not a scientist, but through descriptions like that I can get a very clear sense of what a poison does and how awful it would be to die that way. The descriptions aren’t overly gruesome, but can definitely be uncomfortable.

The best thing I can say about this book is that when I got done I was sad it was over. I wanted to learn more about Norris and Gettler, their lives, their work, and their continued impacts today. To me, that alone makes this a book I definitely recommend to others.

Other Reviews:

If you have reviewed this book, please leave a link to the review in the comments and I will add your review to the main post. All I ask is for you to do the same to mine — thanks!

P.S. If you’re interested in learning more about the author, you can visit her blog — Speakeasy Science — or  follow her on Twitter (@deborahblum). Deb is a really excellent teacher and journalist, so I hope you’ll check out her book!

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