Michelle'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
Nov 14, 2011

Read from November 14 to 16, 2011 — I own a copy

The Poisoner’s Handbook is a fascinating expose on the evolution of poisons and the forensic science behind exposing death by poison. Poisons were ubiquitous throughout the Jazz Age because of an inability to identify murder by poison. Through the use of detailed scientific experiments and conscientious deductive reasoning, Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler changed the face of the coroner’s office and forensic science forever.

Each chapter is divided by poison, with stories highlighting real cases of its use, the damage it causes, and what it took for Norris and Gettler to be able to definitively determine deaths caused by the highlighted substance. The substances range from arsenic to cyanide to radium to wood alcohol, with detailed descriptions of the effect of each poison on the human body. They are as scary as it is spellbinding.

In addition to being a collection of medical case studies, The Poisoner’s Handbook is also a history lesson about Prohibition. While almost everyone will agree what a significant failure Prohibition was at eliminating drinking and curtailing the alcohol industry, what most people do not know are the substances people were willing to put into their body in lieu of the illegal alcohol. This introduction to the true dangers of Prohibition provides some of the most captivating content in the entire novel.

Colleen Marlo was an appropriate narrator for this nonfiction audiobook that reads like fiction. Earnest and matter-of-fact, she details the horrors of certain poisons without becoming melodramatic. Her voice is pleasant and provides easy listening while maintaining the seriousness of the subject matter.

The Poisoner’s Handbook was as entertaining as it was enlightening. Anyone interested in history, science, medicine or true-life crime stories will be delighted by Ms. Blum’s presentation of one little-known aspect of the Jazz Age.

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