Science Writer Deborah Blum’s Book Teaches us About the Chemistry of Poisons.
In “The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York,” Deborah Blum tells the intricate and compelling true story of how, starting in 1915, New York chief medical examiner, Charles Norris, and toxicologist, Alexander Gettler, established the authoritative and reliable field that forensic medicine is today. By carefully selecting detailed court cases and news reports, Blum deftly explains the political and social intrigue, as well as the science, a world in which doctors are hard-pressed to tell the difference between a death caused by influenza and a death caused by criminal arsenic poisoning.
From the very beginning, Blum adopts a heroic tone in order to tell the tale of how forensic medicine came to be: “Together, Norris and Gettler elevated forensic chemistry in this country to a formidable science.” This will appeal to readers who are interested in the murder-mystery aspect of Norris and Gettler’s story.
Unfortunately, the mounting tension she creates never reaches the triumphant climax for which she sets the reader up. There is no “final court case” to end all court cases. In her defence, finding a sudden and irrevocable moment of glory in a country where even the government participates in the regular poisoning of its citizens by adding lethal chemicals to the industrial alcohol used by bootleggers to make prohibition-era booze might be too great of a task.