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)
Using one potent aspect of the era, this author illustrates clearly how science changed the investigation of death from theater and theories to evidence and objectivity. The story especially illuminates Prohibition and its unexpected effects on society.
This is one of the absolute best audiobooks I've listened to. The writing is compelling, the stories told are fascinating, if a little creepy at times.
Probably Charles Norris, the dedicated physician and scientist.
Absolutely. Her writing is excellent, she is obviously well-versed in her subject matter.
It's hard to pick just one, I've been irritating friends for the last week by spouting interesting (in their words, "creepy") facts and anecdotes from this book. I was fascinated by the things people drank during prohibition - everything from Sterno to Ginger Jake (which caused an odd paralysis of the muscles, resulting in a distinctive toe-heel tapping gait known as Jake Leg).
First, I didn't mind the narrator.
Second, I found the first few chapters boring, but glad I stuck it out
Main point - I was fascinated by how much of a role prohibition played in the development of forensic medicine. I was interested to learn how the various distillations of underworld alcohol impacted forensic science at the time. The details of poisoning, both accidental and criminal via consumption of industrial alcohol is a little mentioned byproduct of that foolish chapter in American history. Like with today's drug war, the somewhat glamorous lives of underworld bosses make it to our consciousness, but the thousands?... hundreds of thousands..? Millions? of sad characters who suffered neurological devastation, painful, slow, physical destruction, and pathetic demise due to consumption of improperly distilled spirits is rarely addressed. There is a thorough analysis of the subject in the Poisoners Handbook, along with the impact of prohibition on the coroners offices, and science of forensic medicine.
I was also interested to learn how the government persisted in making the problem worse, even going so far to restrict industrial alcohols to those that would cause the most damage when consumed by humans, even though it was patently obvious that humans would end up consuming much of the product. I also learned what Jake-Leg is.
I think the book was worth the effort for what I learned about prohibition, and would recommend to those interested in US and political history, as well as those interested in the scientific content. Good character development as well.
It was fascinating to learn how much more toxic the world was in the early 20th century than it is now.
All of it! I thought at first the narrator was a computer-generated voice. She seemed to have little understanding of the content, and made many mistakes. I think the most glaring mistake was when she said one of the characters wrote a "one-letter sentence." It then became apparent that it should have been a "one-sentence letter." Does no one "proof listen" to audiobooks?
I found it very interesting, but it wasn't a particularly emotional book.
Re-record this book with a different narrator!
This was a great book. While the narration wasn’t super special it was adequate and the story was not only informative but interesting and held your attention well. I learned a lot I didn’t know about prohibition and the variety of poisons which were the murder weapon of choice during that era and about the efforts of the fledgling ME’s office to develop ways to identify these poisons. Definitely a great book and well worth the listen.
This is a history of an exotic topic. If you like to read this kind of thing to make yourself a more well rounded person, you'll enjoy it. If you have a medical background, it will be even more enjoyable as the medical details will not present a challenge.
This was a great history in an engaging format. The setting is prohibition era New York City and the cast of characters includes scientists, criminals, victims and the poisons themselves.
There are a number of speaking errors in this audiobook that really detract from the whole experience. For example, the person was "Princeton-educated and wealthy" not "Princeton, educated and wealthy". Another issue was the pronunciation of words, one was brazier (used for cooking with coals) pronounced as brasier (used for holding ...well, you know).
If you can get past the frequent errors, this is a captivating history of a profession that we now see on our TVs every time there is a crime scene.
I did not enjoy the reader.
Dr. Norris, in corroboration with his chemist, was an excellent scientist of death back in a time when DNA was a new discovery. Working without mass spec using laborious chemical reactions which were scorned by
No, I learned a lot. Wood alcohol became a default in prohibition and may have killed hundreds of people. I found it very interesting and tangential to
Yes...I browsed through the book, here I get a chance to dive into the topic more.
Linking some of the Murders ( by poisoning) in the story to one person.
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.
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