Back when I attended the UCF Book Festival, I think my favorite author panel was one entitled "Blood and Poison Across the Centuries: True Tales of Crime & Science". You can imagine my eyes bugging out when I saw the topic, being a true crime junky that I am. I ended up buying all three books discussed in this panel, and "The Poisoner's Handbook" is one of them. The subtitle of the book offers a perfect summary of what you're in for: "Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York".
Synopsis: In turn-of-the-century New York, there was no such thing as a proper medical examiner. The coroner was a position filled by corruptible plumbers, businessmen, politicians...virtually none of them had anything close to a medical degree. Sociopaths bent on murder had it made, especially if their weapon of choice was poison. The science available, or lack thereof, made it virtually undetectable. Until the city hired chief medical examiner Charles Norris and his brilliant toxicologist Alexander Gettler. Then all the rules changed.
Norris and Gettler were dogged workaholics that refused to be denied. Through the years, they used science and creativity to identify various poisons, such as carbon monoxide, cyanide and mercury, in corpses. Pioneering a completely unexplored frontier, answers were finally available for accidental and intentional poisonings.
Their path was fraught with obstacles however. Because of prohibition, people turned to suspicious and deadly moonshines and concoctions. Little was understood about fumigation, healing tonics or cleaning supplies. Use of automobiles were on the rise. All of these influences resulted in thousands of accidental deaths and served to further educate those with murderous intentions. Lawyers, judges and juries still viewed forensic science as voodoo and didn't trust the findings. Norris and Gettler became the very verbal champions of it all, promoting awareness in order to save lives.
Blum leads us through the years from 1915 to 1936, with a chapter dedicated to various poisons that had its turn in popularity. Complete with horrifying, real-life examples of the effects of each, the reader can only be thankful to the contributions of Norris and Gettler and how far we've come in the past hundred years.
My thoughts: For anyone who is a true crime enthusiast or even a science geek, may I present to you a treasure trove of all kinds of fun. Although the information presented here is very technical, Blum breaks it all down in layman's terms and provides juuuuust enough detail to make you paranoid. Is my carbon monoxide detector working? Exactly what was in that swill Espiritu del Equador? And don't even get me going on chloroform and Casey Anthony. Oh Lord, did my kids just break that thermometer and splatter mercury in the pool!?
As I like to say with just about every true crime novel I read, you can't make this shit up. Clever men trying to knock off their wives. Someone poisoning pies at a local restaurant. Doctors killing patients. People seeking revenge. These two heroes, Norris and Gettler, had their hands full. In fact, it was estimated that Gettler had examined 100,000 bodies in his career. I was impressed.
Despite Blum's easy prose, I did not find this to be a quick read, even at just under 300 pages. It was heavy with facts, and I found it easier to digest in small doses. It is, however, one of those books where you feed your brain, and you turn the last page with a greater appreciation for a topic of which you probably had virtually no knowledge. Much to my husband's nervousness. I had to laugh at Blum for her last line in the book, which she shared with us at the Book Festival:
"There are mornings, lit by the cold winter light, when I start talking about a poison in my book, revealing my own dangerous expertise, and as I do, I watch my husband quietly, not really thinking about it, slide his cup out of my reach."
3 out of 5 stars