Thursday, April 26, 2012

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

The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum

I love crime dramas and I love period literature, and this book was an excellent blending of the genres. If I had any sort of focus (seriously, a girl almost sets her high school [and college] chem labs on fire and it wipes out an entire career path) and a cast iron stomach, I think I'd be a forensic scientist. But I am so over the flashy, techy forensics we get on modern television. I first became interested in the early days of forensics after watching the Canadian series The Murdoch Mysteries. And then, when I heard about Blum's book, I knew it would be the perfect bedtime reading.

Blum's book is divided into chapters that highlight a different chemical that will kill us. She starts with chloroform (CHCl3) and a serial killer, and throughout the book, tells the story of chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler and their pioneering work in forensic medicine. What I loved about this book is the way Blum weaves science and history together with the pace and tone of a noir thriller. What I did not love, but appreciated nonetheless, was the sometimes gruesome descriptions of autopsies and the really rather horrible ways things like radium (Ra) and mercury (Hg) kill you. She also weaves in some of the history of Prohibition and the really crazy, stupid things people would do to get their buzz on in the wake of the law, including drinking wood alcohol (CH3OH), which, if it doesn't kill you outright, will likely blind you. Blum gives enough of the science of how these toxins work to make you feel like you're really learning something and enough of the gritty, true drama to make you glad that you didn't live in the early 1900s. Although it did make me wonder just what we ingest now that, seventy years down the road, our descendants will marvel that anyone could be so stupid.

And, if anyone is concerned about the recent news about kids drinking alcohol from hand sanitizer (ethyl alcohol), I suggest you all read and pay particular attention to chapter 9. 

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