Terry's Reviews > The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah Blum
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Jun 06, 11

Read in June, 2011

Deborah Blum explores the development of forensic medicine from the 1910s to 1930s in New York City. Those are the squarely set rules to the book and once the reader overcomes the want for answers to questions like "where did it come from?" and "what was happening elsewhere?" one settles into what is a fun slice-of-life view into forensic toxicology in an up-and-coming city of the world.

The book is broken down into sections by killing agent. These are more organizing tools that strict rules and follow the procession of the popular offing method of the day but behind this is a greater narrative beyond that of the developing science. The author does a good job of explaining how bureaucracy, political machinations, public distrust of a burgeoning science and sometimes personal grudges get in the way of what should be a matter-of-fact process of developing a science. The key figures of the head of the New York Medical Examiner's Office and his toxicologist are made out to be titans of the field which they may be but a lack of comparison stimies that until the closing chapter when we learn about the international outpouring of sympathy when Norris dies.

What I liked:
*The "what has to happen to let science happen" narrative - it's refreshing and saddening to see that the same impediments to science have always existed. Makes me feel less alone.
*The weave of history into the story. One sees how prohibition probably killed people and a light hint of how high society was killed by the move to speakeasies and gin joints.

What I didn't like:
*Some parts have factual errors, like listing 50 milligrams as almost 2 ounces. I'm not sure which it was supposed to be and the difference is a factor of 1000. Also, the radon from radium + water is something I've not been able to confirm that seemed suspicious.

*The chapter arrangement seemed force sometimes. The thread of prohibition is derailed with the ethylene lead story which seems just to be added to make an environmental point.
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