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Editorial 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

Critic Reviews

  • 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)

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  • Overall
  • Pam
  • Scottsdale, AZ, USA
  • 04-02-10

The Poisoner's Handbook

This book is excellent. The name is unfortunate because people who should read this and would find it excellent (most people) will pass it up because of the title. if you have an interest in medicine, how the medical communities work and how poor government affect every person, you should read this book.

22 of 24 people found this review helpful

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  • Shauna
  • Pasadena, CA, United States
  • 11-09-14

Before the FDA

This book is written like a series of newspaper stories on deaths caused by poison. To link the stories together, Blum has written about the New York City Coroner who name sounded like Norris and his chief chemist Geottler. Together they change the profession of forensic medicine.

Since reading The Disappearing Spoon I have had a fascination of chemistry. This book goes into detail on the use of forensic medicine to discern the chemical markers of various poisons from arsenic to thallium. For that reason, I found it very interesting. It is not a deep study of the personality of these poisoners. Most were typical Americans, not serial killers.

The book did dishearten me when I thought about the way people bumped off their inconvenient relatives with such convenient methods. I was also saddened by the number of alcohol deaths during Prohibition. Seems that people would go to any length, even if it killed them, to get their alcohol.

I recommend this book to anyone who is curious about a very dark side of American society and the triumph of forensic science.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • Joe
  • Kansas City, MO, United States
  • 11-08-13

Morbid Curiousity and Fun

A mix of historic narrative, scientific examination, personal narrative, and crime intrigue, this book encapsulates everything we love about reading. It follows the careers of two men who created the office and techniques of the modern medical examiner. Like all great historical novels we see how they reform a whole practice with no money, no political backing, and endless work on their tables.

More than that, though, this is a book about how their scientific techniques evolved over the twenties in New York. Peppered with incredible stories of poison, gas leaks, murder, and accidents there is always something more and something fun to hear in this book. The pace is good, the narration is solid, and the promise of something shocking will keep you sitting in your car, listening, long after you arrived at your destination.

4 of 4 people found this review helpful

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  • Richard
  • Weaverville, NC, United States
  • 12-07-11

Really cool book; fascinating!

It is a volume of fun, useful, cleverly told, fascinating information that is useful, if for nothing else, at making me look smart at social gatherings. Honestly, it is one of those books that I wish I could force on people "hey, you, read this! Right now!".

What you want to know is whether it is worth the credit and can you tolerate the narration. The answer is an emphatic YES to both. I enjoyed the perfectly paired narrator's presentation of the gruesomely enthralling subject matter, and I'm sure you will too!

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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  • JMack
  • West Rupert, VT, United States
  • 11-09-11

The Poisoner's handbook

This is an awesome nonfiction book! Even though it is long it is very informative.

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

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

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

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  • Lynn
  • Aurora, CO, United States
  • 05-25-11

Interesting content and narrator was fine!

I enjoyed this book immensely! The title is a bit misleading as each chapter is about a particular poison, (radium, arsenic, methyl and ethyl alcohol, etc.), and there is no continuous mystery involved. However, even as a mostly mystery fiction reader/listener, I found it fascinating!

3 of 3 people found this review helpful

  • Overall

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

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  • Wendy
  • Roanoke, VA, United States
  • 11-09-10

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

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  • Judy
  • Okauchee, WI, United States
  • 10-09-10

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