An Intriguing Read
By Shani Asokan
Many non-fiction books can be very dry, or difficult to get into. Especially for those of us who are more inclined to read fiction, picking up a nonfiction book on a heavy topic can be a daunting task. However, every so often I will discover a piece of nonfiction that is compelling in its writing and incredibly easy to read. For instance, I picked up Invisible Women by Caroline Criado Perez in 2020 and could not put it down until I had finished. I absolutely loved every minute I spent reading it. The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum was no different.
Set during the Jazz Age in New York, this book covers the birth of forensic medicine in the city. Told in the style of a mystery-thriller, Blum draws on original research to track and trace the fascinating journey a pair of forensic scientists embark on, employing science and medical research in their detective work. The two scientists have a single goal: to end the era where untraceable poisons offered a person an easy path to committing the perfect crime. Chief Medical Examiner, Charles Norris and Toxicologist Alexander Gettler examine a series of cases during their time at the New York Medical Examiner’s Office and each one presents a new mystery, or a new puzzle that must be solved in order to catch an elusive poisoner.
The mysteries covered include Barnum and Baily’s famous blue man, a family stricken with baldness, factory worker with crumbling bones that glow in the dark, a diner serving poison filled pies and so much more. Though Blum’s work is one of fact, she employs creative writing methods to tell her story. At the very beginning, you see a murderer walk away with virtually no consequences after confessing to multiple killings by poison, and then vanish without a trace. This is perhaps indicative of the story Blum is about to tell us; an example to illustrate just how untraceable some poisons were at the time, before forensic science and toxicology caught up to the myriad of poisons used to commit murder.
Blum divides her work into chapters based on poisons such as morphine, chloroform, cyanide, radium and more. Each type of poison comes with different cases in which it is used, with the perpetrators ranging from unhappy spouses and impatient heirs to psychopaths and serial killers. Amidst these cases, Blum also gives us insight into the development of forensics in New York; the barriers and the pitfalls, the corruption in politics that spills over into public service jobs including that of the city coroner and the small victories that feed into bigger ones as Norris and Gettler make names for themselves in this relatively new area of forensic science.
The majority of this book takes place just before, during and directly after the prohibition era in the United States of America, and the black market alcohol and moonshine bring troubles of their own. New kinds of poisons are thrown into the mix alongside those used intentionally, making Norris and Gettler’s jobs even harder to do. The author’s storytelling in this book is remarkable; her ability to string together the events in a manner that paints a picture of the birth and developments in forensic science as pioneered by Norris and Gettler is both interesting and intriguing. The chapters read almost as if they are short stories, each wrapping up tidily before continuing on to the other.
Though some may say that the reader does not get enough of a look into the nitty-gritty details of each case that Blum discusses, in my opinion it was just enough to frame her focus, which was the poisons themselves. What I appreciated about this book was that it was relatively free of scientific jargon. Instead, it offered great insight in a language that was accessible to a reader with limited knowledge of chemistry or toxicology. The writing was simple, yet engaging, and made the reading process an enjoyable one. Blum’s heroes are truly the unsung ones, working quietly behind the scenes, on human tissue, blood and other such material in ways never done before to save countless lives from hard-to-detect toxic substances.
In this instance too, we get a good bit of characterbuilding. Of course, this is different to the conventional character building in fiction; Blum is able to bring the two scientists to life with the little details she drops into the story about their lives, both personal and professional. Overall, for me, this was a hit. As a true-crime enthusiast, I’m always looking for books relating to the topic that are easy to read and enjoyable. I haven’t always had the best luck finding such books, so stumbling across The Poisoner’s Handbook was incredible. I think both the paperback version and the audiobook (read by the author) are equally great, so do pick it up in whichever medium you prefer. If you are looking for a detailed history into the birth of forensic science in New York, this probably isn’t for you. If you like true crime, mysteries and a little bit of history but are intimidated by the tomes you normally find on the subject, then this is definitely the one to pick up.