Review – The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder in the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

I read several reviews of this book, put it on my list, and promptly forgot about it. Unfortunately, this happens with many of the books I put on my list. They linger. Fortunately for The Poisoner’s Handbook, I came across it while scanning the shelves at my favorite bookstore one afternoon. It’s a fascinating recounting of the beginnings of the coroner’s office in New York City during Prohibition.

In a city full of corrupt officials, one man manages to change the face of detective work, create what many might consider to be the modern medical examiner’s office, and invent ways to detect even the smallest amount of poison to prove murder. The story of Charles Norris is interspersed with his cases — cases that all have one tie — poison. Before his work as medical examiner, poison was easy to acquire, easy to use, and very difficult to detect. That soon changed when Norris’s methods were put to use.

What surprised me most was just how much poison was a part of everyday products: cosmetics, medicine, and in the case of radium, even considered healthy. People drank it which baffles me. Even Marie Curie used to carry a small vile of radium in her pocket believing it was completely harmless. I found the story about the women working in the clock factory painting watch faces with radioactive paint for the men on the battlefield especially fascinating. What happened to the women was absolutely horrific and the work of Norris and the men in his office to find out what was happening to them was sort of heroic in a way.

A good portion of the book focuses on alcohol and it’s replacements during Prohibition. What people will drink for a high is both disgusting and interesting. I would never in my wildest dreams ever even think of sniffing the stuff let along drinking it. It was a crazy time and I loved the fact that the New York Medical Examiner argued for a repeal of Prohibition in order to save lives. He was right; knowing that if alcohol didn’t once again become legal, more deaths would occur. Many of the people dying were not hard drinkers but casual ones trying to brew up something for a few nips here and there. Crazy times.

I found this a great read and Blum manages to take a subject that could easily get very boring and dry and intersperse it with unbelievable stories that make you wonder if you’ve accidentally picked up a fiction novel. If you’re looking for something different but very informative, pick up The Poisoner’s Handbook. One word of caution though — you don’t want to read it while eating, descriptions of certain poisons and their effects can be rather off-putting.

The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder in the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

By Deborah Blum

Penguin Books

ISBN: 978-1-59420-243-8

4.25 stars