Thursday Reviews!: The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum

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

As informative as this book is, I’m still not 100% sure how to poison a person and get away with it…so I guess the “Handbook” isn’t as handy as it’s cracked up to be….

However, if you wanna know all about hunting bad guys with beakers and bunson burners in 1920s/1930s New York you will not find a better book anywhere than this one. I LOVED it.

Blum has an excellent way of guiding the reader through a multitude of areas that can get confusing in their ‘high-context’-ness. Stuff like history if you’re not familiar with the era or place; stuff like chemistry in any form; stuff like political science all get enough attention so, as a reader, you don’t get lost lost and you’re not bored to tears either. It’s a fine balance and she handles it swimmingly.

This book also handles the intricately knotted tendrils of chemistry, crime, politics, and psychology in the best possible way. Cause and consequence – including the ever-irritating law of unintended consequences – are beautifully illustrated.

My favorite portions of the book were the sections that handled Prohibition’s effects:

“So it was that as Prohibition moved toward reality – Wyoming had become the thirty-sixth state to ratify the amendment on January 16, 1919 – Gettler and his small staff returned to the idea that wood alcohol was about to increase in popularity. THe Eighteenth Amendment, now that it had attained full ratification, was scheduled to go into effect in 1920. Already, though, the medical examiner’s office was charting a rise in alcohol poisoning, as New Yorkers hurried to find alternative supplies.”

We’re always looking for alternative supplies, aren’t we?

The increase in drinking deaths, the government participation in poisoning its citizens (the government officials defending themselves with the all-too-common blustering defense: “They broke the law, they deserve to die!”…as if *abiding the law* and *life* have ever been synonymous), and the necessity of capturing real violent criminals (the kind who poison dozens of bakery patrons), all helped drive Charles Norris, New York’s first medical examiner, and his crew to work round-the-clock to discover the make-ups of several poisons.

It’s a great read. Really quick, to the point, and guarunteed to up your answer quotient on Jeopardy!. But, even more than that, I think that way Blum interweaves all of the seemingly disparate elements of the Prohibition period is helpful as a medium for looking at today’s issues of concern like the economy, oil, immigration, and the reactions to Wall Street. These things, like the issues pressing in the 1930s, do not exist in a vacuum – and a good many of the problems Blum touches upon (corporation oversight, for example) are still with us today. I really think this is an entertaining and important book.

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jenny maloney View All →

Jenny writes dark fiction that her mother hates. Her stories and essays have appeared in Across the Margin, Pantheon, Shimmer, Black Denim Lit, Skive, and others. When she’s not writing her own stuff, she’s reading mysteries for Criminal Element. When she’s not writing fiction or reviews, she’s writing/directing/performing/designing plays at Springs Ensemble Theatre.

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