Wednesday, May 28, 2014

Book Review: 'The Poisoner's Handbook' by Deborah Blum

✰✰✰ The carefree spirit of the Jazz Age included music, dance, corruption, Prohibition, and modern technology. However, it was also a time when murder by poison flourished. At the time, most poisons were largely undetectable; thus, murders were easy to get away with. Poisons were everywhere. The poisons made their way into food, beverages, cosmetics, and the environment. They were used in everything from rat poison to tonics used to restore vigor and health to facial creams used to promote beautiful skin.

When Dr. Charles Norris became the chief medical examiner of New York City in 1918, he inherited a department that was understaffed and underfunded. Corruption was rampant in New York City, and the department suffered. Norris set out to completely overhaul the department. He purchased supplies at his own personal expense and tirelessly advocated for his department. Additionally, Norris created standards that would one day set the tone for laboratories all over the country.

The Bottom Line: This book is about how one toxicology laboratory in New York City modernized the field of forensic medicine. This book is heavy on science, especially chemistry, and includes information about both the poisons and the tests for detecting them are included. Some people may want to skip over the gory parts. Each chapter of the book focuses on a different poison and includes stories about its discovery and how it was commonly used. Plus, ample anecdotes about murders involving each poison are included. Additionally, there are the broader tales of Prohibition and the political corruption in New York City to keep the reader interested. While the writing style was sometimes disjointed and somewhat dry, the biographical information about Norris and Gettler was fascinating.

Recommended for nonfiction book clubs with an interest in science and crime. The classic cases of murder by poison featured in each chapter of Blum’s book are sure to appeal to fans of true crime and television shows like CSI and NCIS as well.

Book Club Notes: It’s always an extra challenge when the book chosen for a book discussion does not include a discussion guide. Thus, for groups interested in picking up this book, here are questions that I gathered as I read.

1.     What did you know about forensic science before reading this book?

2.     Did you know anything about this time period before reading the book? Did you learn anything new?

3.     Did you struggle with any of the chemistry? Did you feel that the science in this book was presented well for a layperson to understand? Were there any concepts that are still fuzzy to you?

4.     Discuss chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler? Was one more interesting than the other?

5.     Norris was able to use his own funds to shape the department. What if the other candidates had been chosen?

6.     Discuss the animal experiments performed by Norris and his staff. Did this bother you? Discuss the contributions to science.

7.     During Prohibition the government deliberately poisoned alcohol. How do you feel about that?

8.     If you were writing a mystery novel, which poison would you choose?

9.     Does anyone have a personal story connected to the Poisoner’s Handbook or any of the topics discussed in the book?

10.   Discuss the writing style. Each chapter is dedicated to a poison. Did it draw you into the story?

11.     How did you find the pace of the book? Did the author’s method of unfolding the events make you feel you were living through the era?

12.     What are the book’s strengths and weaknesses?

13.   Which story stood out the most for you?

14.      Do you have any unanswered questions? If the author were here, what would you ask her?

15.      Rate from 1 – 5 (5 being the highest)

Details: The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum. Paperback published by Penguin Books in 2011. 336 p. ISBN: 978-0143118824

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