Tuesday, August 9, 2011

The Poisoner's Handbook - Deborah Blum

Back when I attended the UCF Book Festival, I think my favorite author panel was one entitled "Blood and Poison Across the Centuries:  True Tales of Crime & Science".  You can imagine my eyes bugging out when I saw the topic, being a true crime junky that I am.  I ended up buying all three books discussed in this panel, and "The Poisoner's Handbook" is one of them.  The subtitle of the book offers a perfect summary of what you're in for:  "Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York". 

Synopsis:  In turn-of-the-century New York, there was no such thing as a proper medical examiner.  The coroner was a position filled by corruptible plumbers, businessmen, politicians...virtually none of them had anything close to a medical degree.  Sociopaths bent on murder had it made, especially if their weapon of choice was poison.  The science available, or lack thereof, made it virtually undetectable.  Until the city hired chief medical examiner Charles Norris and his brilliant toxicologist Alexander Gettler.  Then all the rules changed.

Norris and Gettler were dogged workaholics that refused to be denied.  Through the years, they used science and creativity to identify various poisons, such as carbon monoxide, cyanide and mercury, in corpses.  Pioneering a completely unexplored frontier, answers were finally available for accidental and intentional poisonings.

Their path was fraught with obstacles however.  Because of prohibition, people turned to suspicious and deadly moonshines and concoctions.  Little was understood about fumigation, healing tonics or cleaning supplies.  Use of automobiles were on the rise.  All of these influences resulted in thousands of accidental deaths and served to further educate those with murderous intentions.  Lawyers, judges and juries still viewed forensic science as voodoo and didn't trust the findings.  Norris and Gettler became the very verbal champions of it all, promoting awareness in order to save lives.

Blum leads us through the years from 1915 to 1936, with a chapter dedicated to various poisons that had its turn in popularity.  Complete with horrifying, real-life examples of the effects of each, the reader can only be thankful to the contributions of Norris and Gettler and how far we've come in the past hundred years.

My thoughts:  For anyone who is a true crime enthusiast or even a science geek, may I present to you a treasure trove of all kinds of fun.  Although the information presented here is very technical, Blum breaks it all down in layman's terms and provides juuuuust enough detail to make you paranoid.  Is my carbon monoxide detector working?  Exactly what was in that swill Espiritu del Equador?  And don't even get me going on chloroform and Casey Anthony.  Oh Lord, did my kids just break that thermometer and splatter mercury in the pool!?

As I like to say with just about every true crime novel I read, you can't make this shit up.  Clever men trying to knock off their wives.  Someone poisoning pies at a local restaurant.  Doctors killing patients.  People seeking revenge.  These two heroes, Norris and Gettler, had their hands full.  In fact, it was estimated that Gettler had examined 100,000 bodies in his career.  I was impressed.

Despite Blum's easy prose, I did not find this to be a quick read, even at just under 300 pages.  It was heavy with facts, and I found it easier to digest in small doses.  It is, however, one of those books where you feed your brain, and you turn the last page with a greater appreciation for a topic of which you probably had virtually no knowledge.  Much to my husband's nervousness.  I had to laugh at Blum for her last line in the book, which she shared with us at the Book Festival:

"There are mornings, lit by the cold winter light, when I start talking about a poison in my book, revealing my own dangerous expertise, and as I do, I watch my husband quietly, not really thinking about it, slide his cup out of my reach."
3 out of 5 stars
       

    

13 comments:

JoAnn said...

I enjoy true crime, though not a true junkie, but the pharmacist in me finds this fascinating. The last sentence made me laugh, too. Will have to borrow it from the library and take a closer look!

Jenny said...

I'm not really a science person but this sounds really good! I imagine I'd be super paranoid too after reading it, lol. =)

bermudaonion said...

This sounds interesting, but it also sounds like it might be kind of dense. I'll have to look through it the next time I'm in a bookstore.

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I've read a different book by Blum, and agree that she is slow going, but full of stuff that's good and important to know!

caite said...

poisons...hmmmm, something I have given a lot of thought to!
but one always need more knowledge about such a subject.
just because!

Trisha said...

ooohhh, this sounds like so much fun! In a wonderfully macabre sort of way you know. :)

farmlanebooks said...

I did a course on forensic science at university and was taught about the best way to kill people and get away with it. This sort of stuff fascinates me, but part of me wonders why this information is allowed to get into the publics hands! I think I'd really enjoy this book - I love that last sentence too!

Zibilee said...

This book sounds really interesting, and from your review I can see that it provoked not only interest, but a little bit of wariness! I like nonfiction that deals with weird stuff, so this one is on my list, though it sounds like it was a little dense. I liked your review on this book. Very funny and informative!

heidenkind said...

Does the fact that I think this book sounds super-cool make me a geek? ;)

Julie P. said...

Does this mean that you have lots of ideas about how to poison people now?????

reviewsbylola said...

I just read this one last week. The technicality got to me in parts, because I was more interested in the personal stories. What were the other books mentioned at the panel?

Iliana said...

I'm not much into true crime but I like that this seems to be more of a mix. I'm kind of intrigue and want to know some of those crazy stories :)

Alyce said...

That does sound like a fun book to read in small doses. I'd much rather read true crime stories this way then see them reenacted in a CSI episode (I'm just too squeamish for that). I saw the name Charles Norris and realized that I'd be picturing him as Chuck Norris throughout the entire book. :)