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The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz…

by Deborah Blum

Other authors: See the other authors section.

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
1,7111027,040 (4.09)123
The untold story of how poison rocked Jazz Age New York City. 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. Chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler investigate a family mysteriously stricken bald, factory workers with crumbling bones, a diner serving poisoned pies, and many others. Each case presents a deadly new puzzle and Norris and Gettler create revolutionary experiments to tease out even the wiliest compounds from human tissue. From the vantage of their laboratory it also becomes clear that murderers aren't the only toxic threat--modern life has created a kind of poison playground, and danger lurks around every corner.… (more)
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» See also 123 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 102 (next | show all)
This book was on my TBR for years because science, history, and true crime are all interests and a book that blended all three sounded great. And it was! There’s a lot of information, presented without feeling like a lot, nothing’s portrayed too sensationally or sentimentally (I always worry), and Blum’s style’s easy to follow and fairly fast to read.

There wasn’t really anything in this that wasn’t enjoyable, if one can say one enjoys reading about murders and dead bodies. I liked learning the chemistry behind poisons like arsenic, carbon monoxide, and alcohol and the detail Blum went into not only in terms of what was known then, but what’s known now, and I liked that she laid the book out with each chapter or two tracking a specific poison. I also enjoyed learning how the scientists came up with the tests and methods and standards they needed to be able to prove and prosecute the crimes, and how New York’s medical examiner’s office kind of set the standard for the rest of the US. There’s a lot to the science side of this that basically ranged from “that’s a cool thing I didn’t know” to “wow, really?!”

Blum weaves the crimes and deaths in nicely too. Every toxin has a case or two associated with it, which illustrate how the poisons got used and the curve balls the cases could throw at the M.E. They also bring the 1920s and 1930s to life, in a way, because Blum takes the time to describe the players and the setting, pull from trial transcripts and news articles, and digress into things like factory safety or the ingredients of rat poisons or the alcoholic arms race that was Prohibition. It’s never a fully realised history—you want a different book for that—but it’s a really neat window into the era and I finished the book knowing much more than I did when I started.

She also does a great job bringing the M.E. and chief toxicologist to life, along with their struggles against apathy, ignorance, corruption, and greed. They didn’t have an easy go of it revolutionising their department, let alone their field, and that makes their achievements that much cooler, their disappointments that much sadder. This book is, among other things, something of a bio of these two men, and a portrait of the sort of politics and law enforcement they were facing. Again, I’m sure it only gives the briefest overview, like with the criminal cases, but it’s a side of the 1920s and Prohibition you don’t see.

In short, while there’s nothing much to see me raving about this book, nothing that was so darn superb I have to tell everyone to read this, The Poisoner’s Handbook is absolutely as it should be and a good, informative, interesting read. It’s a well-told story on a cool subject, that’s guaranteed to have at least one fact you didn’t know per chapter, and if I’ve made you interested in reading it, then you should! I’m not hesitant to rec this at all! But do bear in mind my … bear in mind, because there were a few moments I had to pause at, for squeamishness reasons.

To bear in mind: Contains moderate to graphic descriptions of autopsies, chemical testing of human remains, and the effects of poisons on the human body. Also murders, attempted murders, poisonings, corrupt officials, lax job safety standards, and cruelty to and deaths of animals.

7/10 ( )
  NinjaMuse | Aug 6, 2020 |
My hot take from reading this book: chemistry is fascinating and prohibition is even stupider than it sounds. But seriously, this account of poisons discovered between 1915 and 1935, and the creation of a medical examiners office to research them and help investigate crimes committed with them is just amazing. This was my "bedtime book" and I always wound up reading more than I intended to every night -- proving once again that for some of us insomnia is nothing more than a good book and a lack of respect for tomorrow. ( )
  BooksCatsEtc | Jul 26, 2020 |
As many have said, it's a good read. But there is one serious problem. The author appears to be unaware that wood alcohol and methyl alcohol (which figure prominently in the book) are the same thing. Some sections of the book don't make much sense because of that confusion. ( )
  AJ_Mexico | Apr 20, 2020 |
A fascinating mélange of true crime, back room politics, and New York City history, with a little bit of chemistry, courtroom drama, and Prohibition debate thrown in. It is not, despite the title, a guide to poisoning, but rather to the history of the creation of a distinct method of forensic toxicology that would withstand judicial scrutiny in a court of law. The author is able to make the subject much more interesting than one might initially think, especially when you learn the origin of drinks such as the Sloe Gin Fizz, and wonder why we have not learned the lessons of methanol poisoning as it might apply to the current "War on Drugs." There is a fair bit of chemistry discussed, but not so much that a person who, like myself, got the worst grades of her entire life in Chemistry class, could not follow it. If you enjoy true crime and/or court room dramas, have a penchant for forensics, or are curious about politics and/or history, this is your kind of book! ( )
  Poopy | Apr 8, 2020 |
I guess I'm on a non-fiction kick - this one was terrific, I really enjoyed it. It's about the birth of forensic medicine in NYC in the 20s and 30s - full of stories about speakeasies, poisonings (accidental and deliberate) and all that sort of rot. It would also make a fantastic television series! ( )
  Sonya_W | Feb 5, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 102 (next | show all)
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» Add other authors (2 possible)

Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Deborah Blumprimary authorall editionscalculated
Marlo, ColeenNarratorsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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To the Haugen family- Dave, Helen, Peter (always), Treaka- and in loving memory of Pamela.
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Until the early nineteenth century few tools existed to detect a toxic substance in a corpse.
Quotations
Prohibition is a joke. It has deprived the poor working man of his beer and it has flooded the country with rat poison. - Brooklyn magistrate
The government knows it is not stopping drinking by putting poison in alcohol. It knows what the bootleggers are doing with it and yet it continues its poisoning processes, heedless of the fact that people determined to drink are daily absorbing that poison. Knowing this to be true, the United States Government must be charged with the moral responsibility for the deaths that poisoned liquor causes, although it cannot be held legally responsible. - Charles Norris
Only one possessing the instincts of a wild beast would desire to kill or make blind the man who takes a drink of liquor, even if he purchased it from one violating the Prohibition statues.
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Book description
Shares the story of how the appointment of Charles Norris as chief medical examiner in New York in 1918 dramatically slowed the incidence of murder by poisoning, and looks at how Norris worked together with toxicologist Alexander Gettler to investigate chemistry-related deaths and disorders and to establish the discipline of forensics.
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