History · Nonfiction · Science

The Poisoner’s Handbook

by: Deborah Blum

I, most awkwardly, read this book on a plane.  I don’t know if you’ve ever wandered around an airport with The Poisoner’s Handbook in your hand, but I kept on expecting to get funny looks.

Anyway, had I received any dirty looks, this book would’ve been well worth it.  It’s a science history book, extremely engaging and fun to read.  Blum writes of the founding of forensic science in New York during the Roaring Twenties.  The stars of our tale are Alexander Gettler and Charles Norman, a chemist/toxicologist and the chief medical examiner of the New York coronary office.  They’re the ones who took forensic medicine in the USA and made it a useable and respected science.  Getter developed many early techniques used to detect poisons and Norman made possible the structure, funding, and organization necessary to turn a coroner’s office into a place of science and investigation. 

Blum does an excellent job of mixing personality, history, and science.  There’s enough character development to keep the reader liking and interested in the characters, especially Norman, but not enough to make it feel like a novel.  I didn’t want to put it down, actually, even exhausted and on an airplane at dawn’s first light.  Blum is a good writer and the book informs and delights without ever feeling dry or tedious.  

It’s equal parts science and history.  The science is basic and well-developed and -explained, spaced well throughout the book so you’re never overwhelmed with information (a pet peeve of mine.)  It is, of course, a lot of chemistry – poisons! – both of the chemical natures themselves and the methods used to elucidate knowledge.   The methods were not explained in detail, which is actually good as chemistry methods tend to be insanely complicated, but they’re sketched over well enough that the reader understands what they do.  The chemical themselves are explained very well, structure and all.  I wish there had been illustrations of the chemical compounds throughout the book – as good as the written descriptions were, I think that any discussion of chemicals necessitates a drawn structure.  

The chapters are arranged by poisons – arsenic, methyl alcohol, carbon monoxide, ect., – and the science is sprinkled throughout.  Throughout what? Throughout history.  Though the chapters are called by poison names, they’re also arranged chronologically as forensic medicine and poison-detecting techniques are developed.  Murder cases and sociological factors, especially Prohibition, are discussed.  Politics and law, insofar as they intersect with science, were discussed as well.  Surprisingly, everything felt equally well discussed, with nuances presented and clear facts given.  I don’t know much about politic or legal history, so I can’t say as to Blum’s accuracy and grasp of the situation, but her presentation felt fair and was full of interesting facts.  Also, her science was well-researched enough that I’m willing to believe her history was too.  

Looking back, I realize the Gettler and Norris, rather than being the stars, are the backbone of the story.  Blum keeps on coming back to them, from tangents about murder cases, accidental deaths, and the occasional legal or social issue.  I really enjoyed hearing about how new detection methods were developed – Gettler’s dedication to finding even the smallest amounts of poison is borderline crazy but wonderful to read about.  

A warning, though! Dead bodies and ground up tissue abound in this book so if you’re squeamish, I’d give it a pass (or read with a bucket nearby, ’cause this book is really awesome and worth reading!) 

If you’re looking for a science book to read that’s not hard-core science and is a real-life example of how science impacts society, definitely pick up this book.  If you’re looking for a history book with a unique perspective on the early 20th century, you should read this book!  If you’re looking for something with extreme in-depth analysis of history or an extremely technical read, than this may not be the book for you.  



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