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The Poisoner's Handbook Audiobook

The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

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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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Performance
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  •  
    Parola138 Czech Republic 12-01-11
    Parola138 Czech Republic 12-01-11 Member Since 2017

    We bite

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    "Narrator takes some getting used-to"

    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.

    2 of 4 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Jennifer Ottawa, Ontario, Canada 10-20-11
    Jennifer Ottawa, Ontario, Canada 10-20-11 Member Since 2011

    Jennifer B.

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    "Very enjoyable, fun for chemists"

    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.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Ken Boiling Springs, PA, United States 10-06-11
    Ken Boiling Springs, PA, United States 10-06-11 Member Since 2016
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    "Good Story..."OK" Reading"

    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.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Cristina NYC - USA 04-01-11
    Cristina NYC - USA 04-01-11 Member Since 2016

    Cristina

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    "Very Entertaining"

    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.

    1 of 2 people found this review helpful
  •  
    claire b cotts 03-13-11 Member Since 2017
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    "the book is fine, but......worst. narrator. ever."

    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.

    0 of 0 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Rio Missouri 11-21-13
    Rio Missouri 11-21-13 Member Since 2016
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    "Entertaining and easy to follow"

    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.


    Narration:
    Narrator: Coleen Marlo
    Performance: 5/5
    Speed: 1.25x
    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.

    1 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    CBlox Las Vegas, NV 12-18-12
    CBlox Las Vegas, NV 12-18-12 Listener Since 2004
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    "Science lover's dream"

    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.

    1 of 3 people found this review helpful
  •  
    TeacherGirl 10-28-16
    TeacherGirl 10-28-16
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    "Great book, HORRIBLE narration"

    A fascinating book- so good it helped me overlook the absolutely terrible reading. The reader's "German" accent made me laugh out loud, it was so bad! Listen if you don't mind a terrible narrator, otherwise I would recommend reading this one from a print copy.

    0 of 1 people found this review helpful
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    Kerrie Toronto, Ontario, Canada 08-25-16
    Kerrie Toronto, Ontario, Canada 08-25-16 Member Since 2017
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    "Great book, mediocre narrator"

    Absolutely fascinating record of the earliest days of forensic science and public health regulation in the United States, during a time when poisonous substances were an everyday part of life not least because scientific and manufacturers' enthusiasm for the latest chemical miracle often outstripped their concerns about its safety. Deborah Blum does an excellent job of weaving dry science into her novelisic and highly readable account of the personal costs and landmark cases in the fight against poisoners both deliberate and accidental.

    That said... I'm not sure why they didn't take care to find a narrator that would do this thriller-esque tale real justice. Marlo tries her best, but she's just not a very good reader. Odd accents, mispronounced words and misplaced emphasis are frequent enough to get in the way of the listener's enjoyment. A shame, because with the right narrator it could have been brilliant.

    0 of 1 people found this review helpful
  •  
    Gretchen Hunter Greenfield, IN United States 01-10-16
    Gretchen Hunter Greenfield, IN United States 01-10-16 Member Since 2017
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    "Boring"
    Would you say that listening to this book was time well-spent? Why or why not?

    No


    What was the most interesting aspect of this story? The least interesting?

    Nothing


    Do you think The Poisoner's Handbook needs a follow-up book? Why or why not?

    No


    Any additional comments?

    This book should have been interesting, but it took me two tries to get through it.

    0 of 1 people found this review helpful

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