John'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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's review
Jun 09, 2011

really liked it
Read on June 09, 2011

Equal parts Erik Larsen and Agatha Christie, this well-written book chronicles the establishment and growth of forensics in New York City and the impact it ultimately had on the legal system. The book is very well researched and easy to read, plus, it takes on the topic fearlessly.

Set against a backdrop of Prohibition and the Tammany Hall political machine, Blum traces the use of 10 astonishingly easy to find poisons, and how they were used during the early part of the 20th century for nefarious purposes. In each chapter, she presents at least one legal case where the pioneers of forensic medicine made a difference with a particular poison, whether it was to obtain a conviction, clear a wrongly accused suspect, or prove corporate negligence.

There's something for everyone here--lovers of mysteries will be enthralled, even though those who aren't quite as familiar with that genre will be impressed, as well. My one reservation about this book was that there were some explanations of chemical reactions in the lab that were just not that interesting to me. That's not to say they're an unnecessary part of the work, it just something that left me rather cold. There's no doubt in my mind that the author took great pains to thoroughly research and document her subject, and the length of her descriptions of chemical reactions just underscores it.
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