The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum

I’ve always been fascinated by crime at the beginning of the 20th Century. It was a nebulous time when all the trappings of what we now consider standard police work barely existed. Cities were industrializing at a rapid pace even as local governments struggled to keep up. Jack the Ripper‘s reign of terror over London, for example, only occurred around ten years before the new century began, and investigators then had to pretty much spontaneously invent psychological profiling, crime scene investigation, forensic handwriting analysis, and other fields of criminology. (Warnings for graphic photos and descriptions of dead bodies in those links.)

Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York is a brisk tour of this rough historical period. It also serves as a chronicle of a peculiar arms race between killers looking for the most ingenious methods of offing someone and the forensic investigators determined to catch them. Representing the forces of law and order are two scientists, the medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler of the New York Police Department. Blum expertly paints the frustrating morass of bureaucracy, corruption, and ignorance that technicians like them had to endure in order to establish a more scientific and reliable protocol for catching poisoners.

To bolster the book’s science-meets-history theme, each chapter’s epigraph depicts a notorious lethal compound, such as arsenic, chloroform, and even carbon monoxide. These poisons figure prominently in criminals case that the new NYPD forensics department was supposed to tackle, and each successive (tedious, frustrating) victory served to bolster the team’s credibility.

I developed the same kind of geeky enthusiasm for this milieu in its fictional form with Caleb Carr’s The Alienist, which is basically Criminal Minds set in the Gilded Age. In both cases, what drew me in was the idea that these process nerds were struggling to build a rational system by which to pursue criminal investigations, something that old law enforcement types around them just didn’t trust.

Another narrative thread that Blum explores is the US government’s increasingly desperate attempts to enforce Prohibition on a population that was more than willing to drink industrial-grade alcohol in order to experience a boozy haze. The authorities do everything from raiding speakeasies, patrolling harbors, even adding blindness-inducing methanol(!) to contraband booze in order to dissuade the masses from drinking them. It works as well as can be expected, which is to say, not at all.

Since I started trying out popular science books, I’ve noticed that Blum’s decision to present a more or less objective authorial voice is somewhat of an anomaly. Popular non-fiction journalists such as Jon Ronson and Mary Roach adopt very personal viewpoints that give as much importance to their feelings as to the subjects they are covering. I actually prefer Blum’s authorial voice, although I realize that it presents some issues in regards to authenticity, verifiability, etc. I like that this book reads like a long, sustained magazine article with as few digressions from the main story as possible.

Poisoner’s Handbookis hopping with atmosphere and sly humor, not to mention a pretty good warning on the dangers of doing away with a wealthy relative, no matter how tempting Agatha Christie makes it sound.

You can read the first chapter on NPR.org, if you’re interested.

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