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
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
"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)
The history presented in this book is very interesting, especially for anyone interested in chemistry. The reader was sort of droning, but it didn't get in the way of my enjoyment too much.
It was more a listing of how various poisons work than any coherent story.
The performance was very flat.
I have already recommended this audiobook to several friends. It is the kind of listen that keeps you in the car after you have parked it and shut off the engine.
The books compares neatly to and in some ways complements The Murder of the Century, since Poisoner's Bible takes up in NYC about 15-20 years after the main events of the Murder of the Century took place in NYC. Between the two, you can see some major shifts in the way that criminal investigations were being conducted.
Mediocre, mediocre, and mediocre. She created minor but annoying distractions by mispronouncing the names of chemical elements and so forth. Her voice is pleasant and well-enough modulated, but either pronounciation should be checked ahead of time, or narrators who know something about the subject should be engaged.
Moved isn't the right word. Rather I was especially interested by the descriptions of the on-going mouse/mousetrap developments between government scientists, who were deliberately adding toxins to the already dangerous industrial alcohol in order to discourage people from drinking during prohibition and the (ahem) entrepreneurial chemists, who were trying to remove or mask the taste of those toxins so they could make money by selling hooch during prohibition. By some perverse quirk of human nature, one part of the public response to all of this was that the numbers of alcoholics, drunk-driving incidents, and alcohol-related deaths all apparently sky-rocketed as prohibition went on.
The new medical examiners and their chemists, the real subjects and heroes of the book, then had their work cut out, learning to track all these toxins through, mostly, cadavers and parts of cadavers.
If you liked the Ghost Map, or the Murder of the Century, you will probably enjoy this, too.
I really enjoyed this - a fascinating look at science, told through interesting anecdotes and with a good historical context. I wasn't expecting to learn so much about Prohibition, which was an added bonus.
I have to say, though, I did not really love the narration. Her voice was kinda nasal and overemphatic. But by the last half either she had got better, or I had got used to her voice, and it was okay.
The narration was so terrible - full of mispronounciations and innappropriate character voices- that I couldn't get through the first chapter. Very disappointed, as description of the book sounded so promising. Maybe I will buy the book.
This book was really interesting--a combination of scientific examination of different kinds of poisons (cool!), CSI-type mystery solving, and interesting NYC history. It's a really cool idea and I really loved the content! The reader, on the other hand, was a bit weird. She seemed to mispronounce some words and she did a lot of kind of strange voices (over-wrought accents, not saying sentences properly, etc.). I liked the book nonetheless, though, and I'd recommend it for anyone interested in these types of "true crime" topics.
Interesting subject matter. The editing of the narration isn't up to par though.
The editing is odd. There are gaps in weird places, such as mid-sentence.
I would suggest this book to a friend, I found the subject matter enjoyable and educating.
The chemistry education.
The narrator was disappointing.
I thought the story itself was interesting, if a little choppy. Following the evolution of forensics was fun, but at times a little gruesome. The narration wasn't smooth - sometimes it almost sounded like a computer reading. At times there was some background noise. That being said I did enjoy it and might even listen again.
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.
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