A book I’ve seen featured on several blogs, as well as in Quality Paperback Club’s monthly catalog is Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. Published in early 2010, The Poisoner’s Handbook is a fascinating and entertaining history of New Yorkers’ love of poisoning one other. Spanning approximately 20 years, it details the many cases of murder, industrial and commercial negligence as well as other mistakes, mishaps and individual cases of bad luck during the first third of the 20th century: an era we commonly refer to as the Jazz Age. Since I burned through Blum’s book in only a few days, I guess it’s safe to say I found her book enjoyable and entertaining.
Her book begins at the turn of the last century, with the early advances in modern science and with it the newly discovered methods for discovering and isolating the various poisonous substances in nature. Eventually, after scientists discovered how to manufacture concentrated amounts of these deadly toxins it was only a matter of time before the more homicidally-inclined would find new ways to put these different poisons to work for their own nefarious purposes. This would in turn spawn a kind of arms race between lawful investigators and lawless poisoners in a never-ending quest for scientifically accurate and thus legally compelling methods of forensic detection. All of this would be going on against the backdrop of interwar New York City as it struggled against local corruption and the chaos and crime brought by Prohibition.
Much to my satisfaction, Blum’s book is also a book about science, just as it’s a book about history. While I found the sordid details of the assorted poisoning cases entertaining reading, I was considerably fascinated by the scientific aspects of Blum’s book, chiefly how each poison attacks the human body in its own particularly deadly way. Carbon monoxide, while being just the simplest of elements, is painlessly and quickly absorbed by our bodies, displacing oxygen until we lapse into quiet unconsciousness and death. Radium, although used for years in elixirs and cosmetics as well as glow-in-the dark wristwatches, after settling in the bones causes a slow, painful and crippling death by radiation sickness. Lastly, much like the furies in the ancient plays of Euripides, lead when absorbed by the body causes utter madness followed by a slow and debilitating death.
Like I mentioned before, I must loved Blum’s book because I burned through it only a few days. Besides writing about a topic that’s both morbidly fascinating as well as entertaining, she blends the right amount of science, history and specific incidents to keep it all interesting. Although it’s only February, there’s a strong likelihood The Poisoner’s Handbook could end up being one of my favorite books of 2011.