Science Book Review: The Poisoner’s Handbook

In honor of it’s paperback release, I’ve decided to review Deborah Blum’s fascinating history of science book, The Poisoner’s Handbook. No, it’s not a list of methods to bump off your enemies (that’s what the internet is for). It is, far more interestingly, a narrative of the birth of forensic science in the early 20th Century, which is interwoven with individual investigations of famous poisons and poisoning cases of the era.

The book is organized with each chapter devoted to a specific poison (carbon monoxide, methyl alcohol, radium, and so forth). Each poison’s chapter discusses its chemical makeup, physiological effects when taken in the body, and individual cases of poisonings (both intentional and accidental) by that compound or element. And through all the chapters Blum tells the story of the start of forensic science in Prohibition-era New York City chiefly through the lives and work of three men: Charles Norris (the city’s medical examiner), Alexander Gettler (Norris’ head chemist), and Harrison Martland (New Jersey medical examiner).

This type of layout of a book, with each chapter focused on a particular topic while still attempting to maintain a central narrative, can often be troublesome for a writer. I’ve read several similarly structured science books lately which attempted this and did not entirely succeed, causing the narrative to be confusing and disjointed with awkward time and location jumps. These seemed dictated by the author’s need to stick to the topic of each chapter rigidly, but resulted in a sacrifice of story continuity and clarity.

Blum does not have this problem in her book. Although it is organized around specific poisons, she is not afraid to bring in other topics and incidents as they serve the story. This results in a narrative that is clear and comprehensive, leading us from the days before forensics when the medical examiners had very few ways to determine causes of death that weren’t immediately obvious (and seemingly even less desire to do so), through the attempts of Norris, Garrett, and Martland to develop reliable ways of testing for poisonous compounds in human tissue, and culminating in the acceptance of forensic testing as a science and as legally valid evidence.

All this is set against a backdrop of the intrigue and excitement of Prohibition, and the story is filled with fascinating tales and occasionally horrifying facts. (Such as the U.S. Government’s complicity in distributing toxic wood alcohol to the public, in hopes that all the deaths would stop people from attempting to obtain alcohol illegally. It didn’t work.) Not only does the story give the reader a vivid sense of the culture and the time period, but it presents a fascinating and dynamic portrait of men doing truly cutting-edge science and working against the odds (small budgets, poor facilities, and political opposition to name a few) in an effort save lives and bring criminals to justice.

The book is a quick and easy read, and is both enjoyable and educational. When you’re done you’ll have learned some chemistry, some history, and, like me, probably have gained a newfound appreciation for the ability to go down to the neighborhood bar and order a drink that almost certainly will not kill you. Try the Sidecar.

Be sure to use brandy, not wood alcohol.

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~ by lycaon on January 26, 2011.

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