In the 1910s, NYC's coroner's office was a joke. In one disturbing anecdote, Blum relates that a corpse found holding a gun and sporting an obvious gunshot wound to the mouth was declared dead as a result of a "rupture of thoracic aneurysm." Um, right. But this isn't too surprising, seeing as one didn't even have to be a physician to be a coroner at the time. Coroners ranged from carpenters to milkmen, while many of those who did hold medical degrees were incompetent. But the aristocratic Norris, a Yale graduate, cleaned up the department when he took over in 1918 and turned the city's pathology department into one of the best in the country. Alexander Gettler, the son of poor Hungarian Jewish immigrants, pioneered toxicology research during his tenure as the department's chemist. Along the way, Norris and Gettler's work helped solve crimes, paved the way for industrial safety standards, and provided a blueprint for other pathology departments across the nation.
The Poisoner's Handbook is a fascinating blend of science, true crime, and history that brings Jazz Age New York City to life. I have always been fascinated by true crime, as far back as I can remember, and one of my favorite historical periods is the Roaring Twenties, so I naturally enjoyed the cases Blum presents and the evocative description of the era. And as someone who finds medicine and pathology interesting, despite possessing a severe science handicap, I enjoyed the explanations of how different poisons work. One thing I did not expect to enjoy--let alone understand--was the explanations of the chemical compositions of poisons. I mean, I am Zella "Chemistry hates me and beat me up and called me names and stole my lunch" Kate. Chemistry and I are not good friends. But Blum's descriptions of the chemical nature of poisons was straightforward and fairly easy to comprehend, so I didn't mind reading them.
However, for me, the true draw was the colorful characters. Though I was familiar with a few of these cases--including the bizarre story of Michael "The Durable" Malloy, a homeless alcoholic who survived over thirty murder attempts when a group of his acquaintances decided to kill him for his meager insurance money, and the pathetic case of Ruth Snyder and Judd Gray, who conspired to murder Ruth's husband so they could be together, and inspired two of James M. Cain's most famous novels as a result of their inept murder plot--most of these cases were ones I was unfamiliar with, and not all of them were tales of vindictive or greedy poisoners. In fact, quite a few of the tales involve accidental poisonings, which were alarmingly common in a time when everyday household products had ingredients like cyanide and arsenic, and alcohol-related poisonings that were caused by drinkers indulging in industrial products for their alcohol content to dodge Prohibition.
I enjoyed this highly original book very much, but I will say the book's structure takes some getting used to. Each chapter is devoted to a specific poison and a specific point in chronological time in the department's history. (Hence, chapter 5 deals with mercury and the years 1923-1925). For the most part, I thought the author did a great job of chronicling Norris and Gettler's work while balancing it with a specific poison's profile and related true crime cases, but sometimes a few of the stories seemed a bit random at first read, though they always did tie together in the end. I didn't find the structure distracting--in fact, I was impressed with Blum's skill in juggling so many story lines so thoroughly and so seamlessly--but I can see how some readers may find this approach frustrating. Also, I am not a science person by any stretch of the imagination, but I was reading on a forum that there are a few minor errors in the book, like with measurement conversions. But I am not sure how qualified the people posting those comments were, so I'd love to hear what my more scientifically-minded reader think.
If you're interested in history, crime, and science--or any combination of them--you'll probably enjoy this intriguing tale of poison in the Big Apple. After reading this one, I want to see a CSI: 1920s New York edition. :D
Announcement: As some of you already know, I celebrated my one year blogiversary on my second blog earlier this week. Feel free to stop by and partake in e-cookies, which I swear are absolutely 100% poison-free. :D
Next Week: Not sure. I'd like to blog Douglas Adams' The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, which I promised Scott I'd read this summer, but I can't promise anything.
This Week in Literary History:
25 July 1897: Jack London departs from his native California for Alaska, joining hundreds of others en route to Alaska's gold rush. While living in Alaska, London begin sending his short stories off to publishers, eventually leading to the publication of his classic novel The Call of the Wild, which was one of my absolute favorite books in middle school, though I remember very little of it now. (All the more reason to unearth my copy and reread it. ^^)