I have an obsession with true crime documentaries, shows, movies and books. I am fascinated by the motivations and methods of criminals. Up to this point though, I have delved more into serial killers and single murders (Serial season 1, Zodiac, Jack the Ripper, etc). My book club selection for March brought a new subject to me – poisoning and forensics. Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York is an encyclopedia for anyone interested in how you can poison someone, or discover that they have been poisoned. For you chemistry nerds out there this is going to be a breeze. For the rest of us this book can be intermittently dry and difficult but also humorous, intriguing and mysterious.
Each of Blum’s chapters covers a different poison that was all the rage for killing (either intentionally or “accidentally”). From Arsenic to Thallium, our world is filled with dangerous stuff. And back in the early parts of the 20th century – dangerous people were able to get away with using it. With each poison, we discover how New York was the epicenter of forensic science – especially after Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler came on board.
As a true crime fanatic, I found the chapters most interesting that featured tales of murder and the Norris-Gettler team solving them. From the woman who killed her brother to the mysterious death of an entire family, there were some intriguing stories. The book I think suffers most from the chapters on methyl, ethyl and wood alcohols. These chapters exhaust the subject of prohibition and alcohol-related deaths. I was aware the American government didn’t discourage the production of poisonous bootleg alcohol; they felt law-abiding citizens shouldn’t have to worry. The chapters on alcohol are laden with chemistry talk. I nearly failed chemistry because I found it the most boring science on the face of the Earth (well aside from geology). The other takeaway is that we should all be thankful for modern regulatory agencies like the FDA. Believe it or not, people used to drink radium-infused water for their health! Companies were at one point allowed to expose their employees to lead so frequently they went insane.
For those readers who love science I think this book will be a fun read. Blum writes with humor and makes even dull chemistry interesting enough for this literature nerd.