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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

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  •  
    Cookie Anacortes, WA, United States 10-21-11
    Cookie Anacortes, WA, United States 10-21-11

    Cookie

    HELPFUL VOTES
    372
    ratings
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    52
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    "This book really surprised me."

    I found this book compelling. Part murder mystery, part history, and a great lead-in to the PBS Prohibition series. For all who love the "police procedural" as a genre, this is how it started. All those procedures we take for granted in a 21st century police/forensic department were started by motivated honest people who had to fight "city hall" to do the right thing. And all this is just the context for the science and real life implications of poisons (intentional or not) on the human body. I would have listened to this book at twice the length and still wanted more.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Kathy Wildwood, MO, United States 04-27-11
    Kathy Wildwood, MO, United States 04-27-11 Member Since 2010

    I love to read, fly and play tennis. I always have a book and an audible book going at the same time. I'm a mystery/thriller junky.

    HELPFUL VOTES
    38
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    "Hard to explain but easy to listen"

    I enjoyed this and learned a lot of interesting and unusual facts. It's not fiction but kind of written more like a novel then nonfiction so it keeps your interest. If you like murder mysteries this has a lot of that in it, but they're real stories. There were long periods of detailed information, then how that information was discovered, used in a murder, used in the trial of that murder, or used in everyday life. It told the basic story of 2 men, the history of forensic medicine and coroners offices, and a lot about prohibition (18th Amendment) that I never knew. The reader did a good job; maybe not so good with different voices but that didn't bother me at all since most of the book is narration and characters don't actually speak that often.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Wendy Roanoke, VA, United States 11-09-10
    Wendy Roanoke, VA, United States 11-09-10 Member Since 2010
    HELPFUL VOTES
    5
    ratings
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    156
    9
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    "Wow, very compelling"

    This was a very compelling book that I found hard to put down (or press the pause button). The author did an incredible job of interlacing true murder stories, the prohibition era and its effects, the discovery of new elements and chemicals in industry and their effects on workers, and the emergence and evolution of forensic medicine to deal with it all. I was absolutely fascinated and sometimes shocked by what I learned about the history of the science of forensics. I almost didn't get this book because of what some reviewers said about the narrator, but I didn't hear what they heard - I found her voice pleasing and thought she did fine. I am so glad I got this one. Loved it!

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Judy Okauchee, WI, United States 10-09-10
    Judy Okauchee, WI, United States 10-09-10 Member Since 2008
    HELPFUL VOTES
    7
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    2
    2
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    "fantastic!"

    I'm going to listen to this again! very informative & educational. learned much keeps your interest. you really want more!

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Karin Dublin, CA, United States 09-24-10
    Karin Dublin, CA, United States 09-24-10 Member Since 2008

    A published novelist and technical writer, who lives in Northern California with a cranky but loveable parrot and lots of books.

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "A historical version of CSI: New York!"

    I bought this book on impulse during one of Audible's $4.95 sales, and boy am I glad I did! This book is a fascinating tour through a number of murder cases and investigations in New York between 1890 and 1930, touching on social history, chemistry, and the evolution of criminology and forensic science. The story is as much about the struggle of the NYC coroner to re-establish the reputation of his dept. after a series of inept Tammany Hall political appointees bungled their ways through various poisoning cases, as about the development of the science of detecting whether someone's been poisoned or died of natural causes. It's a great listen--interesting material and anecdotes, well-told, that paint a vivid picture of life during the Industrial Age, when foods, over-the-counter medicines, furnishings, clothing, and workplaces were commonly laced with poisons like arsenic and mercury, and when hundreds of people a year died of accidental poisonings before the Pure Food and Drug Act and various occupational safety laws came into effect. Very enjoyable, and I'm definitely going to look and see what else this author has written. So, if you're in the mood for a historical CSI-type book, I highly recommend this one!

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Ellen Kansas City, MO, United States 09-20-10
    Ellen Kansas City, MO, United States 09-20-10 Member Since 2001
    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Delicious!"

    This book was very intriguing and informative. I listened to it for the juicy murders and scandal but the part that sticks with me is the part about Prohibition. I didn't know much about Prohibition and the different kinds of (poison) alcohol people drank during that era. The book explains all about Prohibition and how the government accidentally became the biggest poisoner of all because they tried to make other kinds of alcohol, used for industry, undrinkable. People drank it anyway, and died.

    Of course there is no shortage of juicy family murders, too!

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    vxdvxn 07-25-10
    vxdvxn 07-25-10 Member Since 2009

    I prefer urban/para romance right now for the fantasy aspect, but I listen to other genres as well.

    HELPFUL VOTES
    18
    ratings
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    "Great, informative and engaging!"

    This was an incredibly interesting book. It was great to hear about how the forensic sciences got its start. A great book for people who love history and how things started.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Shawn hendersonville, NC, USA 07-24-10
    Shawn hendersonville, NC, USA 07-24-10
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    "one more A+ for the book C- for the narrator"

    The book itself really made this time and place come to life for me. Detailed and informative for sure. The narration however left much to be desired. The character voices in particular seem so out of place to me as to really inhibit the enjoyment of, and my focus on the material. Coleen Marlo must desist from the character voices in all future endeavors.

    7 of 8 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Judith Homer, AK, USA 06-18-10
    Judith Homer, AK, USA 06-18-10 Member Since 2009
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    "Fascinating"

    I would never have believed that a story about pathologists would have been so fascinating. The combining of crimes, scientific bits about poisons of all sorts and the emergence of a new approach and new tools for detection and law enforcement made for a really engrossing story. Part detective story, part history, part science and all entertaining and educational. I loved it.

    3 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Ed Blanton Mt Dora, FL USA 03-17-10
    Ed Blanton Mt Dora, FL USA 03-17-10 Member Since 2006
    HELPFUL VOTES
    12
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    280
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    "Interesting book, horrible narration"

    I am currently about 3/4 of the way through this book. The story itself if fascinating. However, for a reader with a scientific bent, it is a little lite. But I am really struggling with the narration. As bad as any I have heard in my experience with audible books. It's a real job to listen to this narrator. I guess it speaks well for the book, itself, that I am determined to finish it.

    12 of 15 people found this review helpful
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