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. Continue reading

Stiff by Mary Roach

In my quest to read more non-fiction this year, I went ahead and bought this book which I’ve been hearing about for a long time. As someone who gorges on police procedurals on a regular basis (let me tell you about my feelings for Idris Elba’s Luther one of these days), the subject matter is right up my alley.

Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers is a series of long form essays by journalist Mary Roach that tackles the adventurous (after)lives of corpses that are used for scientific research. From the long-standing and ghoulish tradition of bodysnatching for medical schools to the relatively recent educational facility called the “body farm,” Roach examines not only the mechanics of corpse-related experimentation, but also the ethical and practical implications of doing such work.

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