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Thursday, February 7, 2013

What I'm Reading: The Poisoner's Handbook

I greatly enjoy reading history of science, so when my student Nicole presented her reading map on Deborah Blum's The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Brink of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York last semester, I was intrigued and put a hold on the CD.  I am glad I did.

The story Blum tells is anchored by the career's of Charles Norris, New York City's first officially trained medical examiner and Alexander Gettler, the city's first toxicologist.  To show their importance to their field's Blum breaks the book up into sections, each centered on a specific poison.  She then picks a case or two and throughout the section explains how the poison works, where it came from, and how these two visionaries were able to not only solve the cases, but completely change the way science was used to solve crimes. This structure results in a clever combination of history of science and true crime that in and of itself is enough reason to read the book.

Other appeals include the strong NYC, Jazz Age setting especially the details of the politics and the people (from the rich and famous to the regular ones).  Following the ups and downs of prohibition and its effect on the number of deaths in NYC was enlightening too.

Also, along the way we meet many interesting characters, some victims of poisoning and other the perpetrators, but each is written in a way that captured my interest. Blum was able to use her research to craft a cadre of eccentric, intriguing, and shocking secondary characters.

The pacing is compelling.  Since Blum breaks up the story into smaller sections she never has to let the scientific details bog down the narrative.  The episodic nature keeps it all rolling along. A poison is thoroughly investigated, and just as I began to get bored with a topic, the sections ends, a new one begins, and I was quickly learning about a new poison.  We keep reading because everything old is new again-- new poison, new chemistry to learn, new bad guys, but same old heroes Norris and Gettler.

My only complaint about this book is that Norris and Gettler are portrayed only in a positive light.  They seemed a little too good to be true.  Who knows, maybe they were, but I doubt it.

So if you are a fan of well researched and compelling history of science OR true crime, but especially if you like both, Blum's book is worth a read.

A note on the narration.  It was solid but unmemorable.  It kept me interested but I am not sure it is a book that is improved by listening to it.  However, it's episodic nature made the book a good choice for listening.  It was easy to fall into, listen while I did other things (worked out, folded laundry, drove), and then pick it back up again later. Since the main focus was on two men and only one poison at a time, it was easy to follow the narrative and the science.

Three Words That Describe This Book:  history of science, true crime, clever

Readalikes:  The first character I thought of when reading this book was my favorite budding chemist with an interest in poison's Flavia de Luce.  Then I thought of Sam Kean and Mary Roach.  But so did Nicole when she made her reading map.  In fact, Nicole has dozens of readalikes, so click on over to her reading map and check them out. She did a great job providing a wide range of reading suggestions.

Finally, I will add one readalike to the pot here.  A few years ago I read The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective by Kate Summerscale.  In that review I said: "What makes this true crime story different from many others is that the author takes an interesting angle." Although the angles are different, the same could be said for The Poisoner's Handbook

1 comment:

Abby said...

I just finished this one, picking it up after reading your post about it, and I really thoroughly enjoyed it. Thanks for posting! Now I'm off to push this book on my boyfriend (I think he will thoroughly enjoy it, too).