April 2010

Karen Rigby


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

The twenties and thirties were a grand, sometimes gruesome period, including events such as the Lindbergh baby kidnapping, the St. Valentine’s Day Massacre, and the murders which inspired Chicago, as well as personages like Fats Waller, George Gershwin, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Cecil B. DeMille, Harry Houdini and Al Capone, among too many others to name. Rich material can fuel legends or notoriety, and in a folksier way, can underly everything from themed dinner parties replete with fringed dresses and pin-striped suits, to revisitations of familiar stories through a variety of media. Much like the Jazz Age itself, the title of Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York immediately appeals for its promise of danger and glamour, darkness and spirit, traits which endure in the imagination, and that, if it isn’t facetious to claim, become terribly fun to read about.

Blum expresses a similar contradiction in her author’s note: “There exists a kind of murder mystery pleasure to the subject of poisons… I’ve read and enjoyed numerous stories involving murder by arsenic or cyanide. That hasn’t affected the fact that, in reality, I find poison killings among the most disturbing of all homicides.” When it comes to “those elements and compounds whose toxicity is measured in drips and drops,” some readers may find the subject too visceral, while others may be drawn to cat-and-mouse strategies, quaint characterizations (remember Hercule Poirot?), the quest for justice, or the sensation of whistling in the dark. Blum’s work adds a welcome, deeper dimension to the CSI/mystery genres. She transcends the basic portrayal of poison as a weapon of choice for especially calculating men and women by surveying a slice of history, illuminating some of the chemistry behind the investigative process, and showing how something seemingly minute can prove so chilling in its effects -- and does so in a style that is part science journalism, and part career tribute to the men who dedicated themselves to reform, and to challenging perceptions of what counts as evidence.

The Poisoner’s Handbook contains chapters on chloroform, wood alcohol, cyanide, arsenic, mercury, carbon monoxide, methyl alcohol, radium, ethyl alcohol, and thallium. Using a structure that evokes Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table, Blum considers each substance one at a time in the context of cases presented to New York’s chief medical examiner, Charles Norris, and to the toxicologist Alexander Gettler, pioneers who conducted their experiments before forensic science was a formally recognized field. Their determination drives much of the story as they confront the problems of limited resources as well as a corrupt system (which, in a fascinating detour, Blum explains had once selected examiners with little consideration for their relevant skills). The study of poison slowly gains credence in the courtroom under their combined expertise, and their findings allow others to condemn or vindicate the accused.

Blum has impressively researched what life was like in the decades just after World War I, when everything from cosmetics to household goods could contain lethal ingredients, and when apartments were fumigated with cyanide gas, among other (to the modern reader) surprisingly hazardous practices. She does not, however, raise undue alarms about these heavy metals, plant-derived and industrial products, nor does she draw parallels with the present day to make larger claims about a lack of foresight or governance. She wisely allows historic figures to push for change in the regulatory standards of their day as she chronicles the ways in which Gettler and Norris break new ground.

Well-known stories, such as that of the women who painted wristwatches with radium, appear alongside less familiar accounts of unassuming individuals, from the wife who the press likened to Lucrezia Borgia, to the man who killed patients at the Odd Fellows Home. Macabre as the material is, Blum’s main purpose is neither to examine criminal psychology nor to recreate scenes for titillation. When she describes accidents, murders and the meticulous, messier details involved in performing autopsies, they are intricately tied to the larger arc; it is a sophisticated approach which seeks for the story-behind-the-story. What proves most interesting is often the aftermath. Poisons leave distinctive markers, and tracing the cause of death is as much a study in patience as it is a revelation of strong wills. In a haunting closing note, we later learn how heavily the role of toxicologist weighed on Gettler, who remarked, in reference to the knowledge that lives depended on him, “I keep asking myself, have I done everything right?”

The Poisoner’s Handbook is an informative, engaging look at the efforts of unsung laboratory workers, and the caustic consequences that come from imbibing poison, especially in the context of premeditated deeds. No glittering elixir and no mere staple of the fictional whodunit, poison may well be emblematic of some of the worst aspects of human nature, which, disconcerting though it is to say, creates some of the best reading.  

The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum
The Penguin Press
ISBN:  1594202435
336 Pages