Book Review: The Poisoner’s Handbook

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During the 1920’s, poisons could be found in abundance in almost any New York apartment. Cyanide, arsenic, lead, carbon monoxide, radium, mercury, methyl alcohol and more; these materials were part of everyday life, especially bootlegged alcohol in the “dry” era when the only stiff drinks commonly available had to be distilled from more dangerous liquids. Accidental poisonings were not uncommon, but with the availability of so many lethal substances it was easy for some to use them for their own nefarious purposes. What might seem to be an accident might truly be murder, and, as Deborah Blum illustrates in her new book The Poisoner’s Handbook, a new science was needed to tell the difference.

The Poisoner’s Handbook centers around the careers of two scientists working out of New York’s Bellevue hospital: medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler. They were a formidable team. Norris tirelessly worked to create a state-of-the-art forensic program (often funding his lab out of his own pocket), and Gettler was constantly devising new experiments to parse the mysteries of death by poison. When they started scientific evidence in court cases were a footnote that most felt could be safely ignored, but after years of hard work Norris and Gettler established the importance of forensic science to determining an individual’s cause of death.

These developments were more important than ever during a time when poisonous substances were everywhere. Could a victim’s death truly be attributed to carbon monoxide emanating from a broken fixture, or was there something more sinister afoot? Why were the women who worked with radium paint falling apart? What could have killed a well-liked couple in their apartment when there was no sign of foul play? These were the kinds of questions that Norris and Gettler tackled almost daily, but much of the time they had to deal with the work of one malicious killer: Prohibition.

The trend was clear. Instead of ending drinking Prohibition drove it underground, and the vast majority of alcohol available at speakeasies was powerful stuff. Most of it was methyl alcohol that was distilled from industrial alcohol or “box alcohol” derived from wood, but where a bit of ethyl alcohol might give you a pleasant buzz methyl alcohol promptly knocked you on your ass. Nevertheless people frequently overindulged on the noxious stuff, and as the years went by the forensic scientists saw a dramatic rise in people struck blind or killed by bootlegged alcohol. This was made even worse by the government’s decision to make industrial alcohol more toxic to curb illegal drinking, and Norris, especially, criticized the backers of Prohibition for poisoning the American people.

These stories are interesting on their own, but Blum weaves them together into a brilliant narrative. The reader spends as much time in apartments, on streetcorners, and in factories as in the lab, and Blum has skillfully tied all these disparate aspects of “Jazz Age” New York into a single, flowing storyline centered around science. Many writers start with small stories to hook readers before drawing readers into a larger story, but seldom have I seen it done with more skill than in Blum’s case.

To share a sad truth, I do not particularly enjoy most of the popular science books I read. Even if I am enthusiastic about the subject matter, what I had hoped to be a pleasant reading experience often turns into a slog to get to the end of the book (I know I am in trouble when I start counting pages, “Ok, just fifty more to go…”). Not so with The Poisoner’s Handbook. For me, at least, it is the epitome of good popular science writing. Its excellence stems from Blum’s ability to present science in a social context, and while murderers, victims, bootleggers, and corrupt politicians populate the book’s landscape the science remains central to it. It is a rare book that is able to strike such a balance, and for that reason The Poisoner’s Handbook has earned a treasured place in my ever-growing collection of books.