Wednesday, August 14, 2013

The Poisoner's Handbook

The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New YorkThe Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Using cutting-edge science and hard-nosed determination, New York's coroner Dr. Charles Norris exposed poisoners, cleared the innocent, and revived American forensic medicine during the wild days of Prohibition.

This is a fascinating account of the craziness of Prohibition in New York. It reads like the best of true crime, recounting accident, murder, and poison, poison everywhere. In the 1920s poisons lurked in unsuspected places: in radium-infused skin cream, a leaky gas pipe, the speakeasy's martinis - or offered in the soup by your nearest and dearest.

The coroner's office was one rarely occupied by someone with an actual medical license, and the corruption at Tammany Hall ensured that poisoners could escape with their crimes undetected. Enter an age of reform, which made the skillful Dr. Charles Norris the chief medical examiner. Along with his assistant, chemist Alexander Gettler, Norris revolutionized techniques for the detection of poison in the human body and brought much-needed credibility to forensic medicine.

He had plenty of obstacles to fight: malice as well as ignorance combined to make deadly accidents. A well-liked elderly couple found dead in their locked apartment. A man whose entire family went bald before dying. A drunk Irishman whose friends tried - and repeatedly failed - to kill by various means. And, of course, the government itself, adding poisons to industrial alcohol to discourage law-breaking drinkers.

One test of illicit alcohol had disturbing results: "Every drink contained methyl alcohol but they also found gasoline, benzene, cadmium, iodine, zinc, mercury salts, nicotine, ether, formaldehyde, chloroform, camphor, carbolic acid, quinine, and acetone. No wonder the newest nickname for the stuff coming from the tenement stills and grocery store moonshiners was 'white mule': the clear liquid, it was said, left the drinker feeling kicked in the head." -p. 159

Blum excels at providing clear descriptions of chemical processes as well as outlining the events and personalities that shaped the tumultuous decade of Prohibition. Norris and Gettler are mostly background characters, outshone by a parade of colorful villains and victims. But their tenacity does them credit, and their hard work and rigorous technique makes them the clear heroes of the story. I learned a lot, and was entertained along the way.

Some of the episodic storytelling reminded me of the wickedly fun Wicked Plants by Amy Stewart, which will give you a botanical view on deadly poisons. For another superb look at historic crime, my favorite book is The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher by Kate Summerscale, about the murder of a young child in Victorian England. Goodreads has a fantastic list for forensics junkies called Forensics: If It Doesn't Walk, We Bring Out the Chalk that includes books about some of the cases Blum touches on in her book.

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