Thursday, February 10, 2011

The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum

As a fan of historical nonfiction crime thrillers, I couldn’t wait to read Pulitzer Prize winner Deborah Blum’s new book, The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. Broken down into chapters named after different poisons, each containing several true mysteries, it has many captivating accounts from a very intriguing time and place in our country’s history.

Packed with Progressive Era facts and findings, The Poisoner's Handbook was almost as much about Prohibition, the Great Depression and political wrangling as it was about forensic medicine. The book did, in fact, explore Alexander Gettler and his ground-breaking toxicology experiments more than Charles Norris’ administrative skills, which is contrary to what the blurb led me to believe. That’s not necessarily a bad thing, as Mr. Gettler’s work was definitely more fascinating and hands-on. As someone who knows next to nothing about chemistry, I found this book to be incredibly comprehensive and well researched, with extensive endnotes.
What I didn’t care for was how the narrative bounced back and forth, from case to case and poison to poison. It made it difficult to keep all the information straight. For example: Ms. Blum would be writing about a methyl alcohol poisoning case one minute, then she’d switch to a chloroform case for several pages (or more), then switch back to the previous methyl alcohol poisoning. This happens several times and although she usually does a good job of tying the cases together to make her point, it gets tedious trying to remember all the details within the book. Also, as this was a work of nonfiction, a few photographs taken by the newspapers at the time or borrowed from the family's estates would have been nice to include.
Overall, I thought The Poisoner's Handbook was very interesting and it kept me entertained. I would recommend it to others who like this type of genre/subject. 4 Diamonds


  1. This sounds really fascinating. Though the narration does sound rather confusing.

  2. should give it a try!

    Although I had a little trouble retaining all the book had to teach me, I still feel that I came away with a lot of useful knowledge.


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