The Poisoner’s Handbook

Discover the poisons that brought New York City to its knees in “The poisoner’s handbook : murder and the birth of forensic medicine in Jazz Age” by Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer, Deborah Blum.

The heroes of her book are Charles Norris, New York City’s first Medicinal Examiner, and Alexander Gettler, his able assistant and expert toxicologists. From the vantage of the New York City Medical Examiner’s Laboratory, it also becomes clear that murderers are not the only toxic threat–modern life has created a poisonous playground, and danger lurks around every corner.

“The Poisoner’s Handbook” is structured like a collection of linked short stories. Each chapter centers on a mysterious death by poison that Norris and Gettler investigate. Blum also focuses on the real villains – the poisons – and their deadly maneuverings through the body.

The chapters detail Norris’ death investigations and are classified according to the chemical compound detected in corpses by Gettler. Described are a suite of deadly substances including chloroform; bad booze because of Prohibition; industrial toxins such as radium; and carbon monoxide from illumination gas and automobile exhausts. In each chapter It is a contest between murder suspects and Gettler’s laboratory methods, which improved markedly during the decade.

Each case presents a deadly new puzzle and the need to create revolutionary experiments to tease out the wiliest chemical compounds from human tissue and perform trailblazing chemical detective work. Blum sets forth the facts of such cases, attentive to chemical clues the suspect overlooked but Gettler didn’t. Formative figures in forensics, Norris and Gettler become fascinating crusaders in Blum’s fine depiction of their work in the law-flouting atmosphere of Prohibition-era New York.

The fruits of their labors helped advance government policy and the science of forensics, and have saved countless lives from exposure to previously hard-to-detect toxic substances like thallium and to the then unknown deadly effects of radium, once a crucial ingredient in a popular health tonic called “Radithor: Certified Radioactive Water.”

According to the New York Times, “there is no music in Blum’s “Jazz Age,” a descriptor that feels tacked on to the subtitle by the marketing department, but there are “jazz-flavored cocktails” aplenty. After all, it’s Prohibition, and the government’s efforts to make alcohol less desirable by adding poisons to it constitute one of her most alarming and worthy plots. In this woozy speakeasy atmosphere, unforgettable stories abound. Take “Mike the Durable,” who initially survives even after his killers try numerous ways to do him in. There is also the lovers Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, who inspired James M. Cain’s novels “The Postman Always Rings Twice” and “Double Indemnity.” Ultimately, “The Poisoner’s Handbook” fascinates.”

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