The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum
Sex, drugs and rock and roll, characterizes the 20th century, but the dangers of this crazy life was nothing compared to the boozy, fast life of the roaring twenties. Or so I learned in my most recent read by Deborah Blum, The Poisoner’s Handbook. I borrowed this book from my mother, and I’d been eyeing it for quite some time. When her and my stepfather would fight, she would casually read the book in front of him, or leave it on her bedside table. She used to joke that she was brushing up for if he didn’t fix his attitude, or whatever it was they were bickering about at any given time. I picked it up now because it fit the Popsugar reading challenge: a book about death. Deborah Blum is a non-fiction writer of some notoriety. She’s won a Pulitzer Prize and is a professor of science journalism at the University of Wisconsin. She also co-edited A Field Guide for Science Writers. When it comes to non-fiction writing, scientific writing, and writing about death, she definitely knows what she is doing.
Through mystery, intrigue, and murder: The Poisoner’s Handbook follows two scientific trailblazers, Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler, as they build the field of forensic chemistry from the ground up. These two everyday heroes fight corruption and misinformation in the Jazz Age, when poisons where everywhere from the air of your home, to your cocktail, to your cosmetics. Charles Norris, the chief Medical Examiner of New York City, was appointed in 1918. Using his family money to bolster the small budget provided by the state of New York, He managed to create a highly respected forensics and pathology department that helped win cases and change laws. Alexander Gettler, a toxicologist, used his brilliant mind and dedication to generate test after test; pushing the boundaries of pathology, detecting even the smallest amounts of poisons in the human body. Together with their team they go head to head against prohibition lobbyists, car manufacturers, poisoners and physicists; chasing down the known and unknown poisons in everyday America.
By perusing the table of contents, the reader can tell the novel is organized by types of poisons. There are a few repeat chapter titles which I found curious before I started reading, and completely understood once I had finished the book. The era definitely looped back on itself, as laws changed and scientific discoveries were made. The 1920’s were a huge era of growth, discovery, and scientific expansion; not just in the U.S. but throughout the world. While reading this novel, I felt comfortable taking this information at face value, and while I’m sure there was information omitted by necessity, I don’t feel as if Blum left out anything vital. I loved the depth with which she examined both the crimes and the chemical processes of the forensics and pathology research. In closing, she discusses what comes next, how the system and programs started by Norris and Gettler continued to grow after their death and retirement.
Let’s not forget, this book is filed under social science and true crime. Throughout the novel Blum covers a slew of case studies, criminals, and murders, in almost gruesome detail. I appreciated the lack of bias throughout the novel. Blum didn’t delve too much into personal expression except for that information which could be verified from outside sources, nor do I feel she made up any information to romanticise or add excitement to the subject. The novel did seem to have a wet leaning, but I think that came more from the characters and subject matter as opposed to the author’s personal opinion Given the violence this is definitely not a book for the faint of heart, or for a young reader. High school aged would probably be fine, but I know adults who may feel queasy at some of the more vivid descriptions of death throughout the piece.
I’ve always been fascinated by the concept of the speakeasy and the glamor of the roaring twenties. There are a few bars in my local area that have or currently play to this concept with secret passwords and old style cocktails, now without poisons. Having taken part in my share of these bars, I felt I could easily slip into the setting of the novel. I could practically smell the cigarettes, feel the satin, here the sultry jazz. Though I do find it embarrassing that humanity was so devoted to willingly taking poisons for so long. Not that we still don’t, with cigarettes and alcohol and who knows what else, but Radium water? Really? Despite the unbelievable naivete of the majority of the population the characters were real, historical people. Blum did a magnificent job of making them feel real. After reading, we understand the struggles of our heroes, and their battles, as well as, the motives of our villains, and antagonists.
Despite the correctness of Norris and Gettler’s Missions, the political climate of New York state, and the United States as a whole, was implacable. The American people sought their poisons with a glee that makes even the most laissez faire reader cringe. Knowing what we know now, even with a passing knowledge remaining from grade school education, a modern reader would never consider using the beauty regimens or social past-times common in the Jazz Age. I appreciated the devotion of both Norris and Gettler. They gave up holidays, pay, family time; everything, to improve the lives of millions unknown to them. They touched and were involved in so many lives, and deaths, they were very sympathetic characters, and their lives and personalities made a great backdrop for the story. Just as their impact still molds our everyday lives.
I really enjoyed this read. I felt like I was learning a lot, the entire time, and it wasn’t stuffy or dry. Blum did an amazing job of mixing factual information and scientific discovery with action and true crime details. For some reason, I’m always surprised when I enjoy a non-fiction work, but I have ready very few in my adult life that I didn’t want to finish. This may actually be my first True Crime novel that I’ve read, there will be more to come this year, and I’m looking forward to it. I enjoyed the style and content. This would be a great intro to forensic pathology and the history of medical research for any reader new to non-fiction.
Do you enjoy mystery and true crime? Did you enjoy the Bones series, or adore Ducky from NCIS and wish he had a show of his own? Then you would probably love this novel. Not only do you learn about how these methods of investigation came to be, but also why forensics was necessary and the crimes it helped solve.
If you loved this book check out Deborah Blum’s Pulitzer prize winning novel Ghost Hunters, about William James, a Harvard psychology professor, and his scientific hunt for life after death.
If you want to learn more about jazz age murders check out The Girls of Murder City by Douglas Perry, which is about two murderesses who shot down their lovers and won over the men of Chicago.
If you are still curious about forensics and pathology Corpse by Jessica Snyder Sachs would be a great books to read next. Or, you can check out Blum’s reference from the complete source list in the back of the book.
Have you read any The Poisoner’s Handbook or any of my other recommendations? What do you think of them? Any other books about death or pathology you think I might enjoy? I always love hearing from you so Please comment below or email me at Cherrieschocolateanddirt@gmail.com!
P.S. My giveaway is still live on my review from 7/21 for The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart. On September 1st I’ll select who to give away this book to. Interested? Comment on the post for The Mysterious Benedict Society by Trenton Lee Stewart with your insta or facebook handle!