Ahoy there me mateys! For those of ye who are new to me log, a word: though this log’s focus is on sci-fi, fantasy, and young adult, this Captain does have broader reading tastes. Occasionally I will share some novels that I enjoyed that are off the charts (a non sci-fi, fantasy, or young adult novel), as it were. So today I bring ye a non-fiction title:
the poisoner’s handbook (Deborah Blum)
Except this review has a twist. The First Mate and I listened to this one together. We discussed the book as we listened and I enjoyed his viewpoint so I
ordered asked him to write a review. So you get one from me and a bonus additional review from me crew. Please note that I write like I talk and the First Mate writes like he thinks. Hope you enjoy!
From the Captain:
I first heard about this book from the amazing what’s nonfiction? blog. Y’all should read her excellent review. I thought this would be one the First Mate and I could enjoy together and I was correct. The shortened title is a bit misleading because while it is about poisons, the actual focus is on how forensic medicine was established in New York City during the Prohibition era. Absolutely fascinating!
This historical account has quite a mix of features. There is the chemistry behind poisons and also how chemists learned to establish cause of death using experiments. It discusses how the coroner system worked before the use of science (craziness!). There are true crime stories with the sordid details of both how the murders happened and the sensational trials afterwards. There is insight into how horrible the over-the-counter medicines of the day were. Prohibition is discussed at length as was manufacturing and the unhealthy working conditions (the radium chapter!). Political machinations abound. But the heart of the story is Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler, two of the hardest working men I have ever had the pleasure of reading about. Seriously they are heroes for mankind.
Aye, that list of topics may seem overwhelming but it really is a very accessible book. The science components are easy to follow. Toxicology turns out to be endlessly interesting. Each chapter is loosely dedicated to a different toxin. A lot of the work Norris and Gettler did to establish forensic guidelines involved trying to determine if a death was from murder or natural causes.
I loved this one and only had two minor quibbles. The Prohibition sections, while extremely interesting, seemingly advocated that the government was actively poisoning people to cause deaths. Because of how the book jumps in and out of the discussion of Prohibition (somewhat frustratingly), the facts were a bit misleading. Aye, the government put more toxic chemicals into the industrial substances bootleggers were reverse engineering to make the hootch. The industrial alcohol was never meant for human consumption. This did lead to deaths. The government was trying to discourage the use of these toxic chemicals as alcohol additives. Stupid on the part of the government and absolutely evil on the part of the bootleggers. But drinkers were determined to get alcohol any way they could regardless of known health risks. The Snopes article about the issue actually quotes Blum’s material and clarifies the complexities of the issue.
The other quibble is with the audiobook narrator, Coleen Marlo. She did a fantastic job except for a pet peeve of mine. Accents. She distinguished some of the people by giving them accents when quoting them. The French, Brooklyn, and other choices just sounded so fake and cliché. Annoying. Though the First Mate didn’t really have the same problem.
All together a wonderful read where upon finished leads me to want more information about a variety of topics. I love when that happens. Arrrrr!
From the First Mate:
A few weeks back I read Jeffrey Toobin’s book on the OJ Simpson trial, “The Run of His Life,” and I commented to the Captain how fascinating it was that so many areas of forensic science were obtuse to the jury in that case. We’ve lived in a post-”CSI” world for so long that it’s difficult to comprehend a world where DNA and fiber analysis are not understood by most people. The Captain, of course, had a book in mind that showed that there was a time when even the police were skeptical of what uses forensic science could be put to.
The subtitle of this book “Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York” is really more accurate than “The Poisoner’s Handbook” as a title. While the book does detail a few murderers who are involved in “the poison game,” the real focus of the book is the efforts of Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler to establish the role of forensic science as a vital component of crime investigation in the 1920s and 30s. Norris is the New York Chief Medical Examiner and he deals with the seemingly endless bureaucratic attacks by various New York City Mayors. Gettler is the head chemist and he figures out all sorts of chemical tests that need to be performed in order to determine what chemicals may have led to a person’s death. When the men get started they’re vilified by the establishment (Norris is himself arrested for performing an autopsy) and are constantly fighting for funds and respect.
Each chapter of the book is nominally devoted to a single poison but typically it exists simply as a central focus from which to talk about what Norris and Gettler were up to in a particular time frame. Specifically, we typically get the process by which Gettler figured out how to measure the amount of a particular poison in the human body. Unfortunately, a very reliable aspect of his process involved poisoning dogs and examining the effect various levels of dosing had on the animals. The radium chapter was particularly harrowing.
A peculiar aspect of the book are the chapters devoted to the poisonous properties of methyl and ethyl alcohol. I’m certainly not denying that alcohol is a poison, just that it’s not one that is typically thought of when considering the poisons that are used to kill people. Particularly interesting were the sections on the adulterants that the US government mandated be added to methyl alcohol to make it even more lethal in an effort to further deter people from drinking it. I have to admit that this book is the first I’ve ever read about the odd chemistries that were involved in the battles between bootleggers and the government. I’ll certainly be keeping my eye out for more.
Ultimately, “The Poisoner’s Handbook” is a fascinating read. It’s technical enough that you get really do come to understand the broadest outlines of how the poisons work, while also being accessible in giving you heroes you can root for in Norris and Gettler. They changed the world for the better, and their path to doing so was full of interesting, grotesque, and surprising turns. Highly recommended.
Goodreads has this to say about the novel:
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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