Tuesday, July 27, 2010

The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum

Blum, Deborah - The Poisoner's Handbook Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Deborah Blum follows New York City's first forensic scientists to discover a fascinating Jazz Age story of chemistry and detection, poison and murder.

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.

I picked this up on a whim from the new books stand at the library.

I was rather surprised at how much I enjoyed it. I think it is the long ago chemist in me (hey, I have a BSc(Hons) in Chemistry) that was attracted to it. I very briefly considered forensic science while at university but quickly realised I was way to squeamish for it. But I do love a good forensic mystery where it is science that solves the puzzle.

To read about the beginnings of that science was fascinating.
It was also very interesting to hear about the chemical issues of drinking in the Prohibition era. I had realised the full implications of what the law meant or how absolutely dangerous it had been.

If you like a bit of chemistry, a bit of history and some interesting poison cases, this might be just the book for you

The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York
Deborah Blum
Read: 17-5-10 to 18-5-10


Leigh said...

I saw this mentioned on one of your earlier posts and our library had a copy. It's now upstairs and the next book to read. I'm looking forward to it.

Christine said...

Didn't know you had a degree in chemistry, too! Must see if I can find this book in our local library.

orannia said...

It's on my TBR list! It sounds interesting. Hmmm...I might actually read a nonfiction book this year :) *shocked*