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The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York | [Deborah Blum]

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

In The Poisoner's Handbook, Blum draws from highly original research to track the fascinating, perilous days when 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.
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Audible Editor Reviews

The Poisoner’s Handbook is a masterful addition to that fascinating and seemingly inexhaustible genre of books that uses an apparently obtuse subject as a vehicle to explore wider themes, a genre which includes Susan Orlean’s The Orchid Thief.and Robert Sullivan’s excellent Rats: Observations on the History and Habitat of the City's Most Unwanted Inhabitants. In all three books, a historical or cultural quirk is a prism that refracts big and disparate issues of the time: The Poisoner’s Handbook is the history of early 20th-century crime and punishment, labor law and health care, Tammany Hall and prohibition, and traces changing attitudes to morality and mental illness, xenophobia and racism, police reform and politics.

It is also, of course, a darkly entertaining dissection of the sordid and inventive ways that people found to off each other in Jazz-age New York, and the attendant rise of forensic medicine. Heroes like Charles Norris and Thomas Gonzalez, forensic pioneers, rub shoulders with Mary Fanny Crayton, “America’s Lucrezia Borgia”, and a comedy duo of prohibition cops. There are plenty of grim passages — the physical effects of poisons are described in harrowing detail. But there is also black comedy — an early poison victim is a patient at a retirement home, killed after ringing the bell for attention one time too many.

There is enough material here to fill several books, not to mention offering a juicy role for a narrator to relish. As if taking her cue from the many CSI comparisons already garnered by the book, Coleen Marlo has taken a clinical approach to the dense material, holding the gory details at a distance. Her calm, forensic voice is an apt guide to escort us through the underbelly of murder and its attendant squeamish details, although some modulation in tone and delivery would be welcome. But her voice is an acceptable canvas for the rich writing. Blum knows exactly which nuggets to extract from the mass of research at her disposal in order to bring the past to life: the two elderly people who’d spent a lifetime alone, finally happy to find companionship together before being murdered one year into their marriage. She also has a nice line in dry understatement: “On July 31, Lillian ordered a tongue sandwich, a coffee, and a slice of huckleberry pie,” she reports. “It was the pie that killed her.” Meanwhile arsenic, known as “the inheritance powder” because of its wild popularity in domestic murder cases, has “usefully murderous properties”. Marlo presents these cases dispassionately, letting the incredible facts speak for themselves, and so makes their impact even more striking. —Dafydd Phillips

Publisher's Summary

Deborah Blum, writing with the high style and skill for suspense that is characteristic of the very best mystery fiction, shares the untold story of how poison rocked Jazz Age New York City.

In The Poisoner's Handbook, Blum draws from highly original research to track the fascinating, perilous days when 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.

Drama unfolds case by case as the heroes of The Poisoner's Handbook---chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler---investigate a family mysteriously stricken bald, Barnum and Bailey's Famous Blue Man, factory workers with crumbling bones, a diner serving poisoned pies, and many others. Each case presents a deadly new puzzle, and Norris and Gettler work with a creativity that rivals that of the most imaginative murderer, creating revolutionary experiments to tease out even the wiliest compounds from human tissue. Yet in the tricky game of toxins, even science can't always be trusted, as proven when one of Gettler's experiments erroneously sets free a suburban housewife later nicknamed "America's Lucretia Borgia" to continue her nefarious work.

From the vantage of Norris and Gettler's laboratory in the infamous Bellevue Hospital it becomes clear that killers aren't the only toxic threat to New Yorkers. Modern life has created a kind of poison playground, and danger lurks around every corner. Automobiles choke the city streets with carbon monoxide, while potent compounds such as morphine can be found on store shelves in products ranging from pesticides to cosmetics. Prohibition incites a chemist's war between bootleggers and government chemists, while in Gotham's crowded speakeasies each round of cocktails becomes a game of Russian roulette. Norris and Gettler triumph over seemingly unbeatable odds to become the pioneers of forensic chemistry and the gatekeepers of justice.

©2010 Deborah Blum (P)2010 Tantor

What the Critics Say

  • Audie Award Nominee - Best Nonfiction Audiobook, 2011

"Blum effectively balances the fast-moving detective story with a clear view of the scientific advances that her protagonists brought to the field. Caviar for true-crime fans and science buffs alike." (<>Kirkus)
"With the pacing and rich characterization of a first-rate suspense novelist, Blum makes science accessible and fascinating." (Publishers Weekly, Starred Review)
"Blum interlaces true-crime stories with the history of forensic medicine and the chemistry of various poisons…. [A] readable and enjoyable book.... Highly recommended." (Library Journal)

What Members Say

Average Customer Rating

4.0 (1229 )
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3.9 (769 )
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Performance
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  •  
    Steven newton, MA, United States 09-08-11
    Steven newton, MA, United States 09-08-11 Member Since 2007
    HELPFUL VOTES
    6
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    "It's the narrator, baby"

    I read other reviews that warned me about the narration, and I'm glad I did: I was able to look past a pretty poor performance and see through to a very enjoyable book about the development of modern forensics in the Jazz Age by following the careers of two New York City pathologists. Had I not been warned, the reading would have driven me nuts.

    Seems to me that if these narrators are getting paid to read these books, it might be in their best interest to read the books once through before the recording session and check the pronounciations of particular words. Some of her slips were embarrassing. And I agree with others' observations about the silly caricature voices that she uses for particular characters.

    If I were Deborah Blum, I would be none too pleased with Ms. Marlo's rendition of my work.

    0 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Tarah Colaizy Coralville, IA United States 07-22-11
    Tarah Colaizy Coralville, IA United States 07-22-11 Member Since 2002
    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Bad narrator, good book"

    I have 200 titles in my audible library, and have never really cared enough about the narration to write a review until this title. I really enjoyed the subject matter, its quite compelling to learn that so many toxins were in everyday products with no regulations. However, the narrator was horrid, she mis-pronounces quite a few words, everyday English words that shouldn't pose a problem. She also has bad phrasing, hearing her pause in the wrong places was quite grating.

    0 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    04-23-11
    04-23-11 Member Since 2010
    HELPFUL VOTES
    3
    ratings
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    85
    2
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    "Judge a book by its cover...but not its title"

    I'm glad I listened to this book on my iphone because I would not have been able to tolerate the the cover in even a mass-market-sized art. I believe that life is too short to read bad books---and I finished this one so that is certainly worth three stars. The narration is awkward, but it certainly doesn't ruin the text. Do not be fooled though; this is not about the birth of forensic medicine or murder by poison. At least one half of the book is about the dangers of Prohibition-age alcohol or alcohol-substitutes (self-poisoning). It is interesting and informative but not an expository revelation. If you are a Forensic Files fan, this is not your book. If you are more of a Dirty Jobs kind of person, this will certainly give you the details you crave.

    0 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Jackie Brooklyn, NY, United States 03-20-11
    Jackie Brooklyn, NY, United States 03-20-11 Member Since 2011

    Lemon Lover

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Fascinating Content spoiled by lacking narration"

    I greatly enjoyed the content of this book. Deborah Blum weaves a fascinating tale of American History through the frame of poison studies. The stories are engaging and will change the way you look at the products you use every day, and the relationship we have with modern chemicals. The only regrettable aspect of this product is the narration. Marlo's voices are hokey and distract from the subject matter. Her delivery feels forced and there are some odd edits that leave unnatural pauses. I found myself having to listen to several portions a second time in order to absorb the text. If you are interested in US History, New York, or are simply intrigued by poison, you will enjoy listening. Just be prepared for some silly voices.

    0 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Margaret United States 01-14-12
    Margaret United States 01-14-12 Member Since 2010
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    "Couldn't get very far - boring"

    I can't review the whole book - I couldn't get hooked. Dry as a bone.

    0 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    aimee l armour 01-05-12 Member Since 2005
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    54
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    "Narrator Unbearable"
    Who would you have cast as narrator instead of Coleen Marlo?

    Anyone could have narrated this better! She sounded like a robot - robotic voice, no inflection, odd pacing. I could hear the story past the sound of her droning.


    What reaction did this book spark in you? Anger, sadness, disappointment?

    Disappointment


    0 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    J. Mcgill Winston 04-25-11 Member Since 2005

    jdubz

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "started off well"

    started off well, but i did find the 'time line' could have been clearer in the stories. still overall interesting to listen to.
    also, i had to redownload at one point early on and i could have sworn the first version had a male reader. but that could be the wood alcohol talking.

    0 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Chad Savona, NY, United States 10-02-10
    Chad Savona, NY, United States 10-02-10
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    "Not CSI, or even CSI: Topeka"

    I like scientific history, but this was difficult to get through. The story progresses in an odd manner. It is divided up into chapters on each poison, but it is also partly chronological and ultimately ends up being very confusing. The books main protagonists are poorly developed, so that you never really get a feeling of who they are. Much of the book quotes directly from the newspapers of the day- sometimes interesting, but it starts to feel like you're reading your neighbor's great-grandfather's scrapbook
    The theme of lifelessness extends to the narrator. She sounds like she should be narrating the commands to my voicemail, Her use of different accents is comical and distracting at best. My favorite parts of the narration are when she makes mistakes (two second pauses, garbled pronunciations, etc). At least I know I'm not the only one who lost interest in the reading.

    0 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    robert 09-03-11
    robert 09-03-11 Member Since 2007
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    "Wow! And not in a good way....."

    43.11 min. in and I was asleep. My bad, thought for some unknown reason it was fiction. IT AIN'T and I should not have rated the book. Not the books fault but mine for missing the nonfiction part. Going back to sleep now-Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz

    0 of 3 people found this review helpful
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