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The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York [Hardcover]

Deborah Blum
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (10 customer reviews)
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Book Description

Feb. 23 2010
Video From "The Chemist's War" (Slate Magazine), by Deborah Blum
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.

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Review

“The Poisoner’s Handbook is an inventive history that, like arsenic, mixed into blackberry pie, goes down with ease.”—The New York Times Book Review

“Blum illuminates these tales of Norris and Gettler and their era with a dedication and exuberance that reflect the men themselves. Not only is The Poisoner's Handbook as thrilling as any CSI episode, but it also offers something even better: an education in how forensics really works.” —The Washington Post

“Blum, a longtime newspaper writer and now a professor of science journalism at the University of Wisconsin, skillfully explains the chemistry behind Gettler's experiments. Her book is sure to appeal to mystery lovers, science nerds and history buffs. . . .”—Associated Press

“Fast-paced and suspenseful, The Poisoner’s Handbook breathes deadly life into the Roaring Twenties.”—Financial Times

“All the nitty-gritty about death by arsenic, by thallium, by wood alcohol, is here in precise, gruesome detail.  It makes for a stomach-turning read. . . . .Ms. Blum’s combination of chemistry and crime fiction creates a vicious, page-turning story that reads more like Raymond Chandler than Madame Curie.”—New York Observer

“In this bubbling beaker of a book, [Blum] mixes up a heady potion of forensic toxicology, history and true crime. . . . The Poisoner's Handbook will get into your head. You'll find yourself questioning the chemicals in our everyday lives. What's really in our food, cosmetics, pesticides, cleaning supplies, children's toys and pet dinners? This isn't just a good read. It's a summons to study labels, research, think and act.”—Dallas Morning News

“The Poisoner's Handbook succeeds as science, as history, as entertainment and as an argument for the power and purpose of popular science writing.”—Milwaukee Journal-Sentinel

 “One thinks of Erik Larson's Devil in the White City . . . a book that gave splendiferously disgusting descriptions of horrible murders and did it so dexterously and intelligently that even readers who wouldn't normally read a true crime book were happily sucked in. Deborah Blum's The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York is that kind of book.” —New Haven Advocate

“Blum has cooked up a delicious, addictive brew:  murder, forensic toxicology, New York City in the 20s, the biochemistry of poison.  I loved this book. I knocked it back in one go and now I want more!”—Mary Roach, author of Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Science and Sex and Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers


“The Poisoner's Handbook opens one riveting murder case after another in this chronicle of Jazz Age chemical crimes where the real-life twists and turns are as startling as anything in fiction. Deborah Blum turns us all into forensic detectives by the end of this expertly written, dramatic page-turner that will transform the way you think about the power of science to threaten and save our lives.”—Matthew Pearl, author of The Last Dickens and The Dante Club

“The Poisoner's Handbook is a wonderfully compelling hybrid of history and science built around eccentric characters. One scene reads like Patricia Cornwell and the next like Oliver Sacks. From movie stars and aristocrats to homicidal grandmothers and entrepreneurial gangsters, from the government's poisoning of alcohol during Prohibition to the dangers of radiation and automobile pollution, Blum follows an amazing array of poignant tragedies through the laboratory of these crusading public servants.—Michael Sims, author of Apollo's Fire and Adam's Navel

“With the pacing and rich characterization of a first-rate suspense novelist, Blum makes science accessible and fascinating.” —Publishers Weekly, starred review

“Caviar for true-crime fans and science buffs alike.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Formative figures in forensics, Norris and Gettler become fascinating crusaders in Blum’s fine depiction of their work in the law-flouting atmosphere of Prohibition-era New York.”—Booklist

About the Author

Pulitzer Prize winner Deborah Blum is a professor of science journalism at the University of Wisconsin. She worked as a newspaper science writer for twenty years, winning the Pulitzer in 1992 for her writing about primate research, which she turned into a book, The Monkey Wars (Oxford, 1994). Her other books include Sex on the Brain (Viking, 1997) and Love at Goon Park (Perseus, 2002). She has written about scientific research for The Los Angeles Times, The New York Times, Discover, Health, Psychology Today, and Mother Jones. She is a past president of the National Association of Science Writers and now serves on an advisory board to the World Federation of Science Journalists and the National Academy of Sciences.

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Customer Reviews

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5.0 out of 5 stars Forensic Medicine/Toxicology at its Best March 18 2010
By G. Poirier TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Hardcover
Many books on forensic sciences, aimed at a general readership, have been written over recent years. I have read many of them and, in my view, this is one of the most spellbinding. In the early twentieth century, forensic medicine and forensic toxicology were in their infancy - then along came two great pioneers, Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler. Struggling through the Great Depression and the Prohibition years, they would develop these fields into reliable, indispensable tools in the war on crime. Using, as vehicles, the professional lives of these two scientists working in New York City, the author focuses on the criminal uses of various poisons. Although each chapter concentrates mainly on a particular poison: its availability, its effects on the human body, its detection in human tissue, etc., as well as on related criminal cases, there is some amount of spill-over from prior chapters in both the poisons used and the criminal investigations. This establishes more continuity in the overall narrative than would be the case if each chapter were to stand alone. The poisons featured include chloroform, wood alcohol, cyanides, arsenic, mercury, carbon monoxide, radium, ethanol and thallium. In addition to being clear, friendly and accessible, the most salient feature of the writing style is its tremendously engaging nature; the book is very hard to put down. This is a book that should appeal to all forensic science buffs as well as general readers who love to read good true crime stories.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
By Mark Anderson TOP 50 REVIEWER
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
I first became aware of this book after seeing a documentary called "The Poisoner's Handbook" on the PBS program, American Experience.

The American Experience documentary was based on this book and the author was one of those interviewed in the program. The documentary was very interesting, so I bought the book after watching the documentary.

This is a well written popular history of the development of the New York City Medical Examiner's Office in the early 20th century with particular emphasis on the 1920s and early 1930s, up to the repeal of Prohibition.

The author focuses on Doctors Norris and Gettler, the Medical Examiner's Office chief pathologist and head toxicologist respectively, and details the many political battles between the New York City Mayor's office and the Medical Examiner's Office along with fascinating details of the Medical Examiner's investigations into crime, industrial accidents, working conditions which lead to the deaths of workers and other very interesting subjects.

Apart from the criminal investigations, this book also goes into the New York Medical Examiners' Office investigation of several cases of industrial and workplace incidents. In those pre-Workers Compensation Board times, these New York cases were dealt with by the NY Medical Examiners' Office and the investigation of those cases makes interesting reading. Anyone interested in workplace health and safety issues should find the book's descriptions of these cases to be very informative reading.

The author's bio in the book says she is a science writer but several scientists have left some fairly scathing critiques on Amazon's US site about the flawed scientific details throughout the book.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Readable and full of interesting information April 19 2010
Format:Hardcover
I found this book particularly interesting as a longtime reader of detective novels. I now know that poisoning is considerably more gruesome, painful and messy than the canon of detective fiction would lead you to believe. Also, the history of the development of forensic medicine in general and toxicology in particular, as practised in New York City during the era of Prohibition, is fascinating, as is the story of Prohibition itself.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Loved the book! May 17 2010
Format:Hardcover
I am big fan of historical non-fiction books. And the Poisoner's Handbook is no different from the others. This book is all about the establishment of the coroner's office in New York City. It's a fascinating read talking about the corruption of political office, the incompetency of the initial coroner not to mention background of the various poisons used throughout the years.

Give it a read. You will be glad you did.
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5.0 out of 5 stars Awesome mix of sociology and toxicology May 18 2014
Format:Kindle Edition|Verified Purchase
This is not simply a book about poisons. It covers a fascinating period in American history, when alcohol could contain any number of poisons, and your workplace could kill you. The toxicologists developing their science didn't just solve murders, they started our awareness of environmental poisons. A brilliant look at a the birth of government concern about protecting its citizens from poisons, and a reminder of why this is a good thing.
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