The Poisoner’s Handbook a review

 As most of my followers know I am a huge fan of NPR and its many podcasts. A few weeks back I listened to Talk of the Nation Science Friday’s Ira Flatow interview Deborah Blum, the author of The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. Blum wrote Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life and Death, a book I read a couple of years ago and really liked. Normally a book about the birth of forensic medicine would not appeal to me and to be honest I would not have picked this book up had it not been for the interview. This book is yet another example of why I love NPR’s author interviews.

I got my copy from my local library. I was not sure what to expect as the only thing I know about forensics is what I learned from TV. Oh what a treat this book turned out to be! Not only is it highly educational it is highly entertaining. Once I started reading it was hard to put down.

The story centers around Dr. Charles Norris, Manhattan’s first trained chief medical examiner, and Alexander Gettler, its first toxicologist. These two men work together to bring Jazz Age New York into the 20th century. Both men were fascinating characters, hard workers, overachievers who understood death could come from toxins and chemicals used with abandon as science pushed advancement without testing for possible side effects on humans and the environment. Killers also knew many of these chemicals and elements could kill; Norris is charged with not only finding out how certain murders happen but also to come up with ways to test and prove his finding. With the help of Gettler, Norris changes the public perception of science and forensic judicial testimony. 

Blum shows her readers how the government secretly dealt with prohibition; they poisoned the household and pharmaceutical alcohol hoping drinkers would stop using it to make bootleg liquor. Norris was outraged by this and pointed out that many more people died of alcohol poisoning during prohibition than before. He spent years writing the government and warning the public about the dangers of homegrown liquor, but it is not until the rich start to die does anyone listen.

The book follows a few murder cases and with each Blum proves herself to be a compelling storyteller. I could never put the book down mid-chapter. I always had to follow each case to the end. I found Blum’s explanation of how elements work almost as enjoyable as her case studies. This book has it all; a fascinating subject, wonderful and evil characters, and a plot that at times keeps you in suspense by an author who pulls everything together to weave a story that may stay with you for a long time.

Author: sarij

I'm a writer, lifelong bibliophile ,and researcher. I hold a Bachelors in Humanities & History and a Master's in Humanities. When I'm not reading or talking about Shakespeare or history, you can usually find me in the garden discussing science or politics with my cat.

4 thoughts on “The Poisoner’s Handbook a review”

  1. This sounds like something I would really like. I'm fascinated by forensic science, particularly its origins and evolution. Thanks for bringing this book to my attention, Sari!


  2. @ P.M. Yes it was unusual but very very interesting.@Wendy, yes, I think you would like it. The story of the origin was good as well as the description of various elements and chemicals. I learned a lot more than I would have imagined.


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