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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
  • Karin
  • Dublin, CA, United States
  • 09-24-10

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

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  • Ellen
  • Kansas City, MO, United States
  • 09-20-10

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

  • Overall

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

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  • Judith
  • Homer, AK, USA
  • 06-18-10

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

  • Overall

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.

17 of 21 people found this review helpful

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  • Story
  • Blythe
  • Alberta (formerly California)
  • 02-27-16

Fascinating and wish it had continued longer.

Would you listen to The Poisoner's Handbook again? Why?

Yes, if there was a detail I wanted to refresh my memory on.

What did you like best about this story?

It's a fascinating look at how New York city changed from a city full of corrupt and incompetent coroners to lead the way in forensic toxicology. The book is both a chapter by chapter look at different poisons that were popular over the years, and the story of New York's new Chief Medical Examiner Charles Norris and his head toxicologist as they reform the corrupt city system and race to keep up with the poisoners who are moving on to new types of poison as soon as the researchers figure out how to detect the use of the previous poison.

Besides being a fascinating look at the history and some case studies of poisoning, it's also a striking history of Norris, who was clearly a passionately dedicated man whose reforms to the system must have saved more lives than can possibly be counted. In addition to reforming the city coroners and establishing a world class forensics team and related procedures, he also campaigned against the use of poisons such as arsenic and cyanide in common household products (everything from beauty creams to wallpaper), pushed for regulations to require corporations to list the ingredients in their products and to be held legally accountable for injuries caused, and was far ahead of his time in warning about the dangers of car exhaust and smoking, among other things.

He was also an outspoken opponent of prohibition and the book is an interesting look at prohibition from the point of view of toxicology, as Norris and his team watched in horror as the number of accidental poisoning cases escalated sharply due to the unregulated ingredients of moonshine, the way prohibition converted casual drinkers to binge drinkers, and the way the government actually actively poisoned (with extremely dangerous and known to be lethal compounds) all other sources of alcohol that might be used to create moonshine. This was a side of prohibition I hadn't ever heard of and it's shocking to believe the government was directly responsible for so many horrible deaths by poison of its citizens.

All in all a very interesting audiobook and left me wishing the story had continued past Norris's era and closer to the modern day.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • Judy
  • WAUKESHA, WI, United States
  • 03-19-14

My favorite non-fiction book - EVER

I have listened to this book repeatedly. It is my "background music" book of choice. Fascinating, well researched book. Excellent narrator - even soothing making the more gruesome aspects of the forensic science tolerable.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • DS
  • 01-22-13

THE BIRTH OF FORENSIC SCIENCE

If you have ever doubted the notion that one person can change the world, this is a book you must read.

I found the details of life during Prohibition totally fascinating and I was surprised to learn that FDR initially resisted food and drug safety standards.

Even for someone like me who has no scientific background this was a compelling read and Deborah Blum has made the details of forensic science completely understandable and accessible.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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  • ARR
  • Miskatonic U
  • 10-17-12

Fascinating!

This book is a great blend of history and science, told in an engaging and entertaining style. I usually go for trashy action-packed fiction, but found the narrative of this book to be utterly engrossing.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful

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Fascinating.

I wasn't quite sure what to expect from this book. History and anecdotes, perhaps. I certainly wasn't expecting to be as fascinated as I was.

Ms Blum gives us a bit of history on the actual chemical elements used in various murders in addition to the details of the murders and how they were dealt with. The office of coroner, too, is followed from its beginnings... and there are a few "raised eyebrow" moments in that as well. Things have certainly changed since then.

All in all, the book actually made me regret my 12-hour shift wasn't a little longer so I could listen to the end in one go.

2 of 2 people found this review helpful