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)
I enjoy this type of science book. It goes into the history of how and why and when different types of poisons became detectable by latoratory tests (think CSI). Stories of how some of the poisons were used prior to their being detectable are included. Fascinating for some background in how poisons have been used.
I found the content of this book riveting. First the history of medical examiners and the chemistry they worked with. Allmost more importantly the resistance by the government backed by big business to take steps that would have saved lives. The book absolutey whispers and shouts situations that correlate with issues that come up all too often today. The laying out of the contents of tobacco, the ingredients of cosmetics (think back to the not too distant past when mercury was discovered in lipsticks), and the general irresponsibly towards profit.Finally I found it interesting that the curiosity of human beings both destroys and saved lives. Fascinating.
I'm not sure I'd like to see this in movie form given film's propensity for over-the-top gore fests. The subtlety would be lost and the unsung heros still left unsung.
This was a very intriguing audiobook. I almost gave up on it because the narrator sounds like a bored school teacher going through the motions. However, the text itself is so interesting that after about the 4 hour mark the narrator's presentation no longer annoyed me. I will say I learned a lot from this book. Not just about the poisons and elements, but an astonishing amount of items about the prohibition era.
Great story, memorable characters. I don't usually read or listen to non-fiction, so the fact I found this a great listen is particularly notable. The chemistry details were very informative, but even more informative was the re-creation of a different world, one much more dangerous than the one we live in. With our modern preoccupation with "toxins", it was fascinating to hear how people lived (and died) in an age where real toxins were sold at every hardware and pharmacy. The narration seems a bit flat at the beginning, but is well-suited to this story.
Yes, I do recommend this history of the attempts to clean up the Forensic Medicine field that focuses on New York City and surrounding areas in the early 20th century, BUT the reader needed a good Director who would have told her, "Please, don't do accents like that..." Unfortunately, her first quote is an accented European voice that is just painful to listen to. Overall, she does fine for the majority of the narrative and the story/history flows fairly well. So don't let the opening voice in the audio clip put you off - it really does get better.
I disagree with the other reviewers and don't feel that the narrator did a poor job at all. I really enjoyed the book, it some how remains very light when covering such a dark topic.
I'm about 3/4s through.....The book is pretty good, the structure is interesting, but the narration! Otherwise, I'ld rate it higher.
Almost every character is a man, and the female narrator just sounds silly (though to be fair, some of the women she does are even worse). THE worst are the foreign accents...the corny stereotype accent of french accent, etc.
There was one, it's supposed to be british, but is more like the love-child of a cockney and an australian. At that point, I decided to enjoy it as camp. The book is interesting, but the author over does it on the adjectives and melodrama (instead of red, or crimson, it is a red the color of the red on the black widow spider, etc)
Note to the squeamish - some of the descriptions of the victims suffering, and the parts on experimentation on animals are hard to take.
A great depiction of forensic science at the time of the great depression, speakeasies, and Ginger Jake, this story highlights an era when we knew very little about chemistry, physiology, and toxicology as they intertwine in the human body. Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler, along with their team of scientists, work tirelessly to further our understanding in the field, setting the foundation and paving the way for modern-day scientists. Cyanide, arsenic, mercury, radon, and methyl alcohol are amongst the poisons discussed in this book utilizing various crimes as a stage.
Toxicology, like any science, is an ongoing study. Even with as much data we've collected on chemicals once thought to be safe, there are still compounds, new and old, that we have little to no research on their long-term effects. We hope our government, with its current laws and regulations, are able to keep us safe, but constant vigilance is a must especially when there are so many factors involved. Factors such as the lack of long-term research, the desire for monetary profits, or the desperate need for physical enhancements can contribute to detrimental health.
Narrator: Coleen Marlo
Stories like this requires a narrator that is neither too animated nor too dull because the contents of the tale is not heavily dialogue driven but more factual information being presented. Marlo was easy to listen too and she added some dramatization to the various individuals depicted in the novel which helped add variety and interest to the story.
Fabulous listen for anyone interesed in forensic science. Meaningful, insightful and useful information delivered in a descriptive manner. Narration was distracting as the narrator had what sounded like a irish accent being covered up.
I thought this would be heavy on the true crime side of things with lots and lots of fascinating clues and impressive deductions.
It was about 50% what I was hoping for and 50% a loving biography of the pathologist and the lab guy. Yes, they were interesting, and they sounded like sterling fellows, both of them, but it was not a thrilling listen. The organization of the book was a little strange as well.
It was ok, but I wouldn't recommend it.
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