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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 (1376 )
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  •  
    Aaron - Audible new york, NY, United States 10-12-11
    Aaron - Audible new york, NY, United States 10-12-11 Member Since 2011

    Social Media Misanthrope, audio book lover, wanna be spy, generally decent guy.

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "CSI eat your heart out"

    For a person who has similar (morbid) tastes, "The Poisoner's Handbook" perfectly fits the bill. These crimes take place in New York City during the Jazz Age. The author carefully describes various poisons, such as wood alcohol, arsenic, and radium and the various effects it had on the victims. If your knowledge of poisons is based on tv shows or movies, you will be surprised to find out a lot you (probably) didn't know already.
    As you can guess, forensic science was in its infancy at the time. This book focuses on Charles Norris, the New York City coroner, Alexander Gettler, Mr Norris' lead chemist and Harrison Martland, the New Jersey coroner. These people are for real, not like the old "Ouincy, ME" television show of long ago.
    When you see old movies of people drinking "bathtub gin" during Prohibition, it looks so carefree and fun. But it wasn't. Many deaths were caused by the "hooch" that was made from renatured industrial alcohol. It wasn't a pretty death, either. It makes me wonder why anyone would be willing to take the risk of drinking homemade booze, but plenty of people did it, I guess thinking "It won't happen to me".
    When you see what types of ingredients were in the common ordinary household items, you will wonder how anybody managed to stay alive in that type period. You think toxic products are bad now, when you read this book, you will be surprised how far (or maybe not) we have come.

    33 of 33 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Reagan Little Rock, AR, United States 03-02-10
    Reagan Little Rock, AR, United States 03-02-10 Member Since 2009
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    "Fascinating book marred by production errors"

    First, this book is fascinating and engrossing, neatly following the birth of the New York City Medical Examiner's office and the creation of forensic medicine as a science in America. The book is organized into chapters covering both a short span of time (usually a year or two) and a particular poison that figures prominently into cases from that time.

    The audio production itself, however, suffers from frequent mispronunciations of words and occasional changes of meaning from inopportune pauses by the narrator. It's as though the narrator did the book in a single take and no one bothered to listen to it with an appropriately critical ear. If it weren't for this the book would rate five stars from me.

    67 of 68 people found this review helpful
  •  
    rachel Yakima, WA, United States 07-19-10
    rachel Yakima, WA, United States 07-19-10 Member Since 2009
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    "Enjoyable Enough"

    This audiobook was good if you like to hear about the development of science and interaction of scientific advances with history, politics and society and crime.

    The narrator was fine, though I disliked the voices she used when quoting some characters--they seemed like rude caricatures.

    22 of 22 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Meaghan QUINCY, MA, United States 04-22-10
    Meaghan QUINCY, MA, United States 04-22-10 Member Since 2010
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    "Interesting content, distracting reader"

    I was interested in this book because of an interview with the author on the Scientific American podcast. I really enjoyed the way she spun history and chemistry into a very interesting narrative. The way things were in the big cities of America during that time are often a dark history that we don't learn about in high school history class. It is shocking but terribly interesting.

    The book itself was great, but I was a little distracted by the woman reading it. I wish it had been the author, since I know from her interview she has a decent speaking voice and is knowledgeable on the content. The woman who read the book on the other hand would pronounce the more scientific words awkwardly at times. She also did these really silly character voices. The main character was supposed to be this really educated guy, and she made him sound like a Brooklyn dockhand. Maybe I missed the part where he had a more modest upbringing, but it was comical, and I found it very distracting.

    Other than that EXCELLENT book.

    42 of 43 people found this review helpful
  •  
    RKNS 05-25-10
    RKNS 05-25-10
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    "Interesting book; marginal reader"

    Fascinating information on poisons; scary incites into our history and culture in the context of corporate irresponsibility and government hesitation to act. The reader damaged the experience with overwrought attempts at foreign accents and obvious mispronunciations of scientific terms. I really wish there were technically savvy proof-listeners for audio as there are proof readers for the written word.

    25 of 26 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Sparkly SF, CA, United States 08-15-11
    Sparkly SF, CA, United States 08-15-11 Member Since 2008

    interested in history, science, and pulp fiction

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    "History, biography, and science - fantastic."

    I heard about this book on a science podcast, so I expected a good science read but I was pleasantly surprised by the engaging stories. The author frames the material by entwining biography, history, and science together in a wonderfully efficient, illuminating, and entertaining way. The author has identified a historical moment during which a perfect storm of influences came together, which is what I look for in a history book.

    It is not for the squeamish, but the author has a way of delighting in the details of how poisons work in the body, while remaining sympathetic to the victims. There is an enthusiasm for both biological science and history here that is delightful and rare.


    The narrator gives an eccentric performance, but she grew on me and became part of the quirky charm of the book.

    11 of 11 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Penny Sugar Land, TT, USA 03-07-10
    Penny Sugar Land, TT, USA 03-07-10 Member Since 2006
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    "Very interesting!"

    I enjoyed this book. Although each chapter is dedicated to a specific poison, that does not mean that the chapter is exclusive to that item. The story is well told. I think an interest in chemistry and biology will help in the appreciation of this book.

    11 of 11 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Linda Lou Cave Creek, AZ USA 03-06-12
    Linda Lou Cave Creek, AZ USA 03-06-12 Member Since 2007

    Obsessive reader, 6-10 books a week, chosen from Member reviews. Fact & fiction, subjects from the Tudors to Tookie, Harlem to Hiroshima, Huey Long to Huey Newton.  In-depth fair reviews - from front to BLACK!!! 

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    "WOW!!!"

    I can be a bit verbose with my reviews but I write what I want to see when I read the reviews of others. However the three-letter heading really sums it up! But, if you insist.....

    While I know that forensics didn't begin recently, there has been a huge gap on books about criminal investigation in the decades between Victorian-era Sherlock Holmes and present day "CSI: Miami". And both of these accounts are largely science fiction - my long-time Sr. Crime Scene Investigator boyfriend doesn't drive a Hummer, conduct highly technical forensic and chemical tests, arrest perps, or interrogate suspects! He mainly "bags it 'n' tags it", i.e., collects evidence like bullet casings, weapons, blood, drugs, etc., dusts for fingerprints, and thoroughly documents the crime scene with schematics, photos, and video, assuring that everything is logged in which begins the critical chain of custody for trial.

    This book gives credit to 2 brilliant dedicated scientists who created, formally organized, and set the current standard for catching murderers and/or exonerating innocent people of the most elusive and complicated manner of death - poisoning. Before there were mass chromatograph spectrometers, there was chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler, scientists who dedicated their time and, often, their own money to convince the corrupt NYC legal system that forensics had a much- needed place in criminal investigation. And they did it with glass tubes, petri dishes, and Bunsen burners in the 1920s! They could keep working in a blackout while today's forensic labs would have to close up until the computers had power!

    My only complaint is the narrator. While she can spit out long hard-to-pronounce chemical names without batting an eye, for some strange reason she had Dr. Gettler sounding like Tony Soprano! Totally unnecessary and often distracting. This is not a book which requires gimmicky accents. The subject matter stands on its own. AMAZING!!

    21 of 22 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.

    17 of 18 people found this review helpful
  •  
    R. Campbell Glastonbury, CT, United States 02-02-12
    R. Campbell Glastonbury, CT, United States 02-02-12 Member Since 2002

    Ray Campbell

    HELPFUL VOTES
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    "Great Book - Narration is Fine"

    This is a fascinating study of the development of Forensic. The book is like a collection of short mysteries including dastardly villains and heroic investigators, law courtroom drama and tons of riveting details.

    I was prompted to write this note because so many of the other reviews give the narration a C. For me, the tone of Coleen Marlo's voice is pleasant and her pace is solid. The quality of the recording is consistently excellent. The only issue I detect is that from time to time it sounds like she stopped mid sentence and re-started after a break. This creates several very minor stumbles - not poor narrating, a few minor production flaws. I noticed, but it was not a big deal. I give the narrator an A and the producer a C. Please don't overlook this book owing to reviews that note this bluntly. Great book, fine narration. It is likely that most listeners will not detect any issue.

    7 of 7 people found this review helpful
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