The Poisoner’s Handbook: A Belated Review

It is possible you have already read Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook. I was late to the game when I first picked it up and I have been reading it on and off for several years.*

For those of you who haven’t read it, the book’s sub-title says it all: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. In the early twentieth century, poison was readily available and largely uncontrolled. Industrial chemists had created new poisons and introduced old-poisons into readily available household products in the name of progress. Carbon monoxide poured into the air from that emblem of modernity, the automobile, and from “illumination gas” leaks in the home. With the introduction of Prohibition, wood alcohol and other toxins found its way into drinking flasks and cocktail glasses. Chemists had found ways to create new compounds, but had not yet developed ways to detect their affects on the human body. Poison became the murder’s weapon of choice. Blum tells the story of how medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler–as dynamic a duo as you could wish, without the capes–created the new discipline of forensic science, one poison at a time.

Blum organizes the book around individual poisons and the cases that developed around them.*** The result is a intricate combination of clearly told science and page-turning mysteries, set against the backdrop of rapid social change in the Jazz Age. It is fast-paced, smart, and gripping: Bones meets F. Scott Fitzgerald.

*Paradoxically, I kept putting it down because it was so good. I wanted to read it it the way I drink cold water on a hot day, draining half the glass at once. Unfortunately life didn’t allow that kind of reading. For years there was always a book I needed to read for a Shelf Awareness for Readers review, or a stack of material to read for the latest book I was writing.** Having written this out, I realize this is the silliest reason to not finish a book that I have ever heard. I am tempted to erase it and just write the review. But instead I will leave it in as a Public Service Announcement to readers. Saving books for the perfect reading opportunity makes no sense.

**It’s hard to belief, but Women Warriors will be my eighth (8th!!!) book in a little over ten years. It’s amazing I have time to read anything.

***I originally picked up the book because fellow author and historian Holly Tucker recommended it as a primer in how to structure a complicated story.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.