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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; 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 during a remarkably deadly time. A beguiling concoction that is equal parts true crime, twentieth-century history, and science thriller, "The Poisoner's Handbook" is a page-turning account of a forgotten New York."
Publishers Weekly® Reviews
- Reviewed in: Publishers Weekly, page 50.
- Review Date: 2009-12-14
- Reviewer: Staff
Pulitzer Prize–winning science journalist Blum (Ghost Hunters) makes chemistry come alive in her enthralling account of two forensic pioneers in early 20th-century New York. Blum follows the often unglamorous but monumentally important careers of Dr. Charles Norris, Manhattan’s first trained chief medical examiner, and Alexander Gettler, its first toxicologist. Moving chronologically from Norris’s appointment in 1918 through his death in 1936, Blum cleverly divides her narrative by poison, providing not only a puzzling case for each noxious substance but the ingenious methods devised by the medical examiner’s office to detect them. Before the advent of forensic toxicology, which made it possible for the first time to identify poisons in corpses, Gettler learned the telltale signs of everything from cyanide (it leaves a corrosive trail in the digestive system) to the bright pink flush that signals carbon monoxide poisoning. In a particularly illuminating section, Blum examines the dangers of bootleg liquor (commonly known as wood, or methyl, alcohol) produced during Prohibition. With the pacing and rich characterization of a first-rate suspense novelist, Blum makes science accessible and fascinating. (Feb. 22)
Forensic pioneers follow the trail of a silent killer
Fans of television’s “CSI” and its myriad spin-offs will no doubt find much of morbid interest in Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook, a lushly detailed account of how the discipline and profession of forensic science emerged from the “poison playground” of 1920s New York to become an indispensable argumentative tool in the modern-day crime-fighter’s arsenal. In particular, Blum focuses on the turbulent lives and trailblazing careers of the city’s chief medical examiner, Charles Norris, and his trusty toxicologist, Alexander Gettler. Through their diligence, persistence and selfless devotion to the cause, Norris and Gettler laid the intellectual groundwork for a new—and potentially invaluable—field of study in the span of a few short decades. All the while, the pair waged an uphill battle against popular (and political) scientific ignorance and faced resistance, often fierce, from clueless city-hall bureaucrats and budget-cutters.
Known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning work as a journalist and science writer, Blum displays a remarkable gift for narrative storytelling in The Poisoner’s Handbook, weaving together, from seemingly disparate elements, an old-fashioned tale of suspense that is as readable as it is densely informative. Each chapter of the book takes its title from a particular periodic element or compound, introducing the reader to these lethal substances in the kind of vivid language novelists often utilize to introduce their main characters. While the pages are populated with plenty of human villains, these killer compounds are the book’s real antagonists. Whether used as a murder weapon or ingested accidentally, each poses a unique and complex puzzle for Norris and Gettler, prompting the pair to devise ever more cunning procedures for the detection, in human tissue, of lethal quantities and trace amounts alike. They work tirelessly, selflessly, even courageously at fine-tuning and perfecting their craft, using their own meager salaries to cover laboratory expenses and generally learning as they go—at times from their own deadly mistakes.
The Poisoner’s Handbook is that rare nonfiction book that has something for everyone, whether you are a true-crime
aficionado, a political-history buff, a science geek or simply a fan of well-written narrative suspense.
Brian Corrigan lives and writes in Florence, Alabama.