01 August 2010

The Poisoner's Handbook

This week I was filing a book away in my library's true crime section when the title A Poisoner's Handbook caught my eye. I am a bit ashamed to say that my first thought was "Oh my God! We have a book on poisoning people!" and, as a consequence, I couldn't resist picking it up. (In my defense, I am not plotting to poison anyone's tea. I am merely stumped on a short story I have been working on for quite some time, in which poisoning plays a vital role to the plot. And I'm a little morbid, but that's a different story . . . ) As I thumbed through the book--rather than filing the other books I should have been attending to--I quickly saw that, no, this book is not a literal handbook for would-be poisoners. Author Deborah Blum does one better. She relates the strangely engrossing saga of forensic science in the 1920s New York City, as NYC's first medical examiner, Charles Norris, and his brilliant toxicologist, Alexander Gettler, transformed forensics from a little understood discipline to a highly respected science crucial to crime investigation.

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. ^^)


  1. Hello "Zella Chemistry hates me and beat me up and called me names and stole my lunch Kate", that is a very nice second middle name you've go there. xD
    This sounds like a very interesting book! Crime History + chemistry sounds fascinating, I might pick it up sometime if I want a break from the sort of things I usually read. :)
    Also, since we're talking of poisons, a sparkler showed me this joke/pun yesterday: http://chzsomuchpun.files.wordpress.com/2010/07/ae400230-4829-4471-87f9-747776a0eb93.jpg
    Get it? It's a poison iv, like, poison ivy. So lame it's funny, is it not? Or not. x)

  2. I would absolutely love to read a book about poisons and how to use them. Not because I'm a murderer, but just because I think that would be fascinating. One time I spent an entire afternoon looking up lock picking techniques. I wanted to learn how to hack, but I don't know anything about computers :)
    That being said, I saw this the other day at the library and thought it looked really good. Thanks for reminding me about it! I have been reading tons of great nonfiction this summer, and I am loving all of it. I like science and social science nonfiction the best, but history is up there also.
    Once I finish Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil (it is excellent so far!) I am going to check out The Poisoner's Handbook.
    Side note: I love The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy!

  3. @Feathery: Haha Thanks! My parents showed great foresight in naming me that, though it is a bit long and can complicate filling out forms. *cough* :P I think you'll enjoy this one. It's got a lot of science in it, but it's not hard to read at all. And I loved the pun photo! Corny puns are the best. :D

    @Serena: LOL I could use a poison handbook, too. Again, not to use on someone, just for personal knowledge. O:) I love good non-fiction, too! My favorites are probably history and true crime, but I also enjoy a good social science book or biography. I have never read Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil. I may have to try it out. I think you'll enjoy this one very much. I can't wait to hear what you think of it. I have never read The Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy, but so many people have told me how much they love it, so I can't wait to read it!

    Thanks to both of you for commenting! :)

  4. I have to say, that is a catchy novel title. I would likely pick it up and take a look too. (not that I want to poison anyone...) ;)

  5. Hehe It *is* a very catchy title. It's the author's fault for writing a book with such a name. We are entirely innocent for picking it up. :P

  6. Ah, you always seem to read such interesting sounding books. After your Picture of Dorian Grey post my brother (the Chairman) rang me up asking me to lead him my copy (which I haven't read yet).

    And I can't wait for you to do Hitchhikers Guide! It's brilliant!

    (And now in my sinful impatience I have to ask, how are you going with getting around to adding to the story? Because sooner or later my impatience is going to make me write again but I don't really want to butt in infront of you).

  7. Thanks, Penguins! It is a very interesting book.

    Has your brother read Dorian yet? When he finishes, make him give it back! It's a great horror classic that is more haunting than flat-out scary. :)

    I'm a little over halfway through The Hitchhiker's Guide and I love it! It's just so funny! :)

    Well, I plan on writing it this weekend. I don't have anything written yet, per se, but that's what I plan to do. If something comes up preventing that--it better not!--I'll let you know. I wish I were starting school a couple of weeks later . . .

  8. I haven't given it to him yet, as we're currently in different towns, but when I start university in the same town I'll give it to him. I start in two days! Very excited!

    Glad you're liking Hitchhikers. You'll have to read the other five books in the trilogy too (although I guess it's six books now since Eion Colfer wrote one).

    And I'm very much looking forward to seeing what you write :)

  9. Ah, I see! (Do make sure he gives it back, though. :D)

    Yay for starting college! Do you know what classes you'll be taking? :)

    Oooh, I didn't know it was a trilogy! I am nearly finished, and it has been absolutely wonderful.

    Thanks! :)

  10. Ooh I definitely want to read this. I saw it at the bookstore one day and it seemed really interesting. I didn't buy it because I'm trying not to spend all my money on books.

    I absolutely love chemistry. I even went so far as to taking AP Chem this year (wish me luck!).

    I'm dying to read this book now!

  11. SweetTart_Girl, Hehe You sound like me! I usually blow a lot of my pay check on books. Does your local library maybe have this one?

    Oh my! I respect anyone who is smart enough to like chemistry! (I will say I had a very good biology professor last year who is the only person to explain chemistry to me that made sense. I really considered taking chem with him, but it didn't fit my schedule. So I can see how it is fascinating, though it still scares me!) :D

  12. I have started using my local library lately but they don't really get the books fast enough to me. My grandma is at the bookstore right now and I asked her to get this book for me. Hopefully they have it!!

    I don't always understand chemistry but it I am always fascinated by it. It's actually biology that I struggle. In fact, I sometimes wish I was predisposed (sp?) to science rather than English. But the feeling quickly passes. :)

  13. Oh, goodie! I hope they have it too. I ordered this one from the bookstore after I read it because I wanted my own copy. I can't wait to get mine!

    LOL Science is very fascinating, but it is way over my head. I suppose that can be both good and bad. I'll take my English and histoy! :D

  14. They didn't have it :(

    I even went so far as to check on thier database. Guess that one's going on the library list.

    You know what's over my head? MATH! I cannot for the life of me understand it. The worst part is that I got a math summer assignment (that I still haven't done-school starts in 3 days) and not an English one. Crazy!