Tuesday, April 05, 2011

The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

Attention All Murder Mystery Writers--do I have a book for you!

Deborah Blum's The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York is a must read for anyone who wants to devise a murder-by-poison as well as get step-by-step forensic info for the detective to solve the murder and catch the villain.

While the chemistry is fascinating (yes, you read that correctly--Blum describes in understandable terms how poisons work to kill humans), what I enjoyed most about this book were the stories, which were literally "ripped from the headlines" of New York City papers during the first decades of the twentieth century. From socialites who were murdering in order to get their inheritance early to deadbeats who wouldn't die regardless of how much poison was pumped into their systems to adulterers who thought they had a fool-proof way to get rid of unwanted spouses, Blum paints a wonderfully realistic, albeit tawdry, picture of American life and its dangers during the Jazz Age.

I honestly had no idea that the bootleg liquor spawned by Prohibition was so deadly, nor did I know that the American government systematically poisoned its citizens in its ill-conceived effort to stop them from drinking alcohol.

The heroes of Blum's story are Charles Norris, NYC's first medical examinator, and Alexander Gettler, its first toxicologist. Fair warning--these men were scientists who experimented on animals to determine the affects of various chemicals, poisons, and elements on body tissue, and Blum's descriptions of their experiments as well as their procedures during autopsies are grisley. Thankfully, she sticks to clinical language in these parts, so I was able to read it, but I'm in no danger of becoming a medical examiner anytime soon. These men were also tireless, honest, dedicated, persistent, and incredibly intelligent and perceptive, bringing to justice hundreds, if not thousands, of murderers and exonerating the innocent who had been falsely accused.

The book is structured chronologically with each chapter and time frame focused on a different substance...with arsenic and chloroform as the poisons of choice in the early years of the century and thallium at the end of the era she chronicles. I found the section on radium so interesting--did you know that people used to drink liquids infused with radium for the life-rejuvenating properties marketers claimed it had?

Political Note: This book should be required reading for anyone who thinks the Food and Drug Administration is a waste of money. It is chilling what companies are willing to do if not regulated--this may recount stories from the early 1900s, but I know how much human nature changes over time! One of the case studies Blum covers in the radium section is heartbreaking--young girls who painted dials on watches died horrible deaths because of the radium in the paint and the company fought them vigorously in court and they ended up with just a pittance before they had all died tragically premature deaths.

You really should read the Amazon interview with the author in which she lists and describes her top ten "favorite" poisons. It's a great preview of the book and will give you a taste for what the book is like.

Even if you're not a murder-mystery writer, this is a non-fiction book that reads like a who-dunit and definitely is worth reading. One of the best books I've read this year.

I enjoyed Blum's style so much that I checked out what else she's written. Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death sounds good, don't you think?


  1. I love the title of this one! Definitely grabs your attention!

  2. That sounds fascinating -- am I really creepy for wanting to read this? Of course I loved Stiff by Mary Roach and I love murder mysteries, so this isn't really that different. Right? Right?

  3. I have to second everything you said This was my favorite nonfiction book last year. The section on the radium girls has stuck with me the most --you can actually find copies of newspaper articles from the actual cases online. Have you read Blum's Ghost Hunters? I've heard that it is also very good, but I haven't had the chance to read it yet.

  4. I haven't read this one, but I listened to the audio of Ghost Hunters a while back, and it is really good.

  5. I just picked this one up a few weeks ago and now I'm really looking forward to getting to it! Thanks for the review!

  6. I'm halfway through this book! It is as you say, chilling and very interesting, especially the true stories. I find some of them haunt me - the stepmother who tried to poison her stepson because she didn't want him in her 'new' family, the gas that made pockets - killing the sailors on the ships after it was sprayed for rats, or the poor couple who died in their hotel room several hours later. Fascinating book, and the political side too is interesting as well. Excellent review.