“I loved the chapter on prohibition.”Wendy Pennett wrote this review Monday, July 16, 2012. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
“Fascinating view of the birth of US forensic science in the 1920's. ”K. A. E. Stark wrote this review Saturday, June 9, 2012. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
“There are so many reasons that I like being a member of book groups. I enjoy discussing the book we all read and those books that we may have recently enjoyed. I like the opportunity to defend my opinion and interpretation of whatever we read. I especially am excited when a discussion group introduces me to a book I would not have picked up on my own. This month I have been lucky enough to get two non-fiction books that showed me two new authors and subjects that I wouldn't have found by myself. The Poisoner's Handbook is one of them.
Science writing often fits my criteria for good books. They teach me lots of new, fun facts and introduce me to worlds I could not have imagined. Thanks to non-fiction books about science, I have learned about corn sex, malaria, genetics, abundant life in one small creek and even the difficulties of studying human sex. Now I get to add that I have learned more about poisoning and the birth of American forensics than I really thought I would want to know.
Blum writes well and so I was glad to go for the ride to discover how Prohibition affected the rate of poisoning, to learn about Norris and Gettler who together advanced toxicology and forensics and all the other things she taught me. This is a well-written book that held my interest from the first chapter onwards.
I recommend this book to discussion groups, to any reader that wants to learn more about our world or our history and to those folks who love true crime. Even if you don't fit these categories you may find that The Poisoner's Handbook is just what you are looking for. ”
“This was a totally fascinating and utterly engrossing non-fiction book, combining (as the sub-title notes) the birth of forensic science, true crime, history, and totally amazing, heroic characters adding up to a really terrific read!
The early twentieth century in the United States was an era where science played little, if any part in the investigation of crime, and poison particularly was so little understood that murderers who killed with poison were virtually immune to the possibility of detection. Science generally, and the science of forensic detection especially was in its infacy and so nobody knew how to identify poison, let alone prove it as the method of murder.
Into this exciting era of change, growth and chaos - Jazz-age New York - came two relentlessly determined men who ultimately dedicated their careers and their lives to bringing the rigour of science to the medical examiner's office. In 1918 Charles Norris was appointed as the first Chief Medical Officer of the city of New York. He brought in toxicologist Alexander Gettler, and together they changed the justice system completely.
The book is organized in chapters that each focus on a specific type of poison, from familiar ones like arsenic and cyanide, to chemical poisions like carbon monoxide, radium (which people voluntarily ingested before anyone knew better) and even alcohol.
The alcohol poison is a continuing sub-story that connects in a very interesting way to Prohibition which happened and continued throughout the 1920's. Something I learned from this book is the fact that the U.S. government legislated the requirement that companies who manufactured alcohol-containing products for purposes other than consumption had to make the alcohol increasingly more poisonous to deter those determined to drink regardless of the law. Unsurprisingly, not only did this not work, but the numbers of those poisoned from drinking this government-sanctioned tainted alcohol numbered in tens of thousands every year, just in the New York area!
There is so much fascinating stuff in this book that a review can't really do it justice. The glue that holds all the various stories of murder, suicide, accidental death, Prohibition and the history of New York together are Norris and Gettler, who are maniacally dedicated to using science to create a system of crime investigation and process that will catch and thereby punish murderers using proof and fact. These two men are unrelenting in their determination and it is hard not to be in awe of their efforts.
A couple of warnings for the squeamish: 1) this book is very science-focused, and there are not only detailed and somewhat graphic descriptions of the effects of the various poisons on the human body, but also detailed descriptions of the experiments Gettler and Norris do in order to identify the poisons and create the ultimate system of forensics. I didn't find these very disturbing, and if you are a reader of true-crime, I doubt it will be too much. However, if you are very squeamish this may be too much for you.
The second warning is for the animal-lovers. Because of the time-period the book covers - the 1920's to 1930's - many of the experiments Norris and Gettler do to try to identify and quantify poisons and other compounds are done on animals, including dogs and cats, as well as chickens, ducks and other, and the animals usually died as a result. I found that the experiments did happen in as humane a manner as possible, and that the animals were not made to suffer beyond what was absolutely necessary to find out what was required. However, if you are highly disturbed by any use of animals as medical test subjects this may not be the book for you.
Overall, however, the way the author skillfully uses stories about people: murder victims, investigators, politicians, criminals, etc., to teach you about the history of the times and the development of the science of forensics is so interesting and entertaining that if you didn't know better, you could easily think the book is a work of fiction. I really enjoyed this book - it has so many interesting components and I learned so much from reading it that I just can't say enough about how good it is. Highly recommended!”
“A useful, entertaining, detailed tome organized around actual poisoning murders in the U.S. in the late 1800s and early 1900s. Blum develops some medical examiner hero stories that are enlightening and valuable - these pioneering and determined men should be remembered.
Plenty of chemical information is provided - for those of us who don't read chemicalese, they can be blurped over. Description of some procedures for analyzing tissue are clinical but grisly; be aware.
A valuable resource for the fan of murder mysteries, as well.”
“Interesting introduction to the birth of forensic medicine with respect to poisons. Enjoyable but seemed to skip around a bit and was sometimes hard to follow.”Becky Gibson wrote this review Friday, February 17, 2012. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
“Not a dreadful read; however, the description on the dust jacket leads the prospective reader to believe that the story is more exciting than it really is. If you're interested in chemistry and the science behind things, this is a good read for you. If you're more into the action & excitement, pass this one by.”Shelley M wrote this review Saturday, January 28, 2012. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
“I must have seen this on Shelfari. I figured it was basic fiction. Wow, how interesting! I watched CSI from the very beginning and I love crime drama. My daughter actually went to college for forensic science when there were almost no programs out there! So here I am, an artist never having had chemistry! This was fascinating, learning all about the beginning of forensic science, the mistakes that people have made throughout the 20th century with beverages, insecticides, beauty products, cigarettes.... It makes me wonder what we will find out in the future about the things we are using now! The inks, ceramic glazes, oil paints I worked with and later found out were not so good for me! Yes, I played with mercury when a thermometer broke.... Just a fascinating read for anyone who enjoys a great novel, historical adventure, good detective story, or environmental issues. So many things to learn.”Featherwood wrote this review Monday, January 23, 2012. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No
“This is a fast moving, very interesting lesson in American history and Chemistry with some mystery thrown in. Fun to read.”Ashley Tanner wrote this review Wednesday, January 11, 2012. ( reply | permalink ) Was this review helpful? Yes | No