The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum, or how chemistry without regulation kills people

The Poisoners Handbook
Recommended for: not recommended for junior poisoners
Read from November 22 to 25, 2012, read count: once, and once only

Please note: this book is not actually helpful if you were looking for tips on how to poison someone (unless you are the U.S. government, in which case there are notes scattered throughout on how to poison industrial alcohols). I wanted to like this book. I wanted to rate it higher. I’m not quite sure what I expected, but I don’t think it was this mix of science journalism, novel and research notes. I’m a biology nerd who enjoys science writing and have two years of chemistry under my belt–including organic, which was the most effort I’ve put into a college class ever–so this should have been like serving truffles to a chocoholic (who, me?). Unfortunately, awkward organization and writing has me wondering if it was laced with wood alcohol.

Divided into chapters on early 1900 poisons, it roughly covers the birth of forensic medicine in New York City under one of the more motivated chief examiners, Charles Norris, and a talented chemist, Alexander Gettler. However, a great deal of Prohibition detail is also included, scattered throughout most the chapters. The publisher was misleading with the subtitle; I suppose The Emerging Disciplines of Medical Examiners and Toxicology in Context of Courtrooms and Politics During Prohibition in New York would not have been nearly so sexy a description as “a fascinating Jazz Age tale of chemistry and detection, poison and murder.” Alas, there is no jazz to speak of. There is, however, a paragraph mentioning the development of cocktails in the Prohibition speakeasies as a way of disguising the harsher alcohols–now there’s a chapter I could have enjoyed.

Chapters include chloroform, wood alcohol (an inadvertent poison resulting from Prohibition), cyanide, arsenic, mercury, carbon monoxide methyl alcohol, radium, and ethyl alcohol. To me, the implication on the jacket of “tale,” implies a singular subject. There is no real common link between chapters (barring the intermittent appearance of Norris or Gettler), except that they are about “poisons” and detection. Please note, junior scientists, that some of these cases are intentional poisonings, but some are accidental and more correctly described as casualties of the human search for improvement–one story mentions how an “over-zealous nurse ‘poisoned’ a child by treating his head-lice with the prescribed radium tonic.” (As such, the technical term is likely ‘toxic dosed’ over ‘poisoned’). As the book continues, Blum does little to separate the intentional from the accidental, which is a disservice to the material and the victims. In her afterword, Blum mentions how poisoning always seemed particularly horrific because the murderer was not only planning a death, but presumably aware of the potential for the victim’s suffering. So to discuss both murderers, accused murderers, and those who kill (or suicide) by accident or ignorance is misleading and imprecise, rather surprising in a science writer.

One of the few threads pulling the story together is the difficulty of prosecuting poisoners, and the efforts of examiner Norris and chemist Gettler to build and prove their evidence of cause of death. I can only shudder at some of the experiments–nowadays, chemistry is conducted more-or-less safely under specially vented lab areas and usually doesn’t involve liquified organs. One experiment was designed to detect post-mortem cyanide, both in poisoned subjects and unpoisoned ones. The chemist tested flesh up to 8 weeks old, noting that there was a fair degree of putrefaction. Ugh.

Her writing style is acceptable, although I occasionally found her attempts to add flourish awkward. Case in point: “Or Belle Guinan’s El Fay Club on West 45th, where the hostess gleamed like a candelabrum and the house band played…” Candelabrum? Really? I found myself completely distracted, unable to decide if she meant the hostess was metallic, on fire, or, in a more literal translation of the word, had hair twisting branch-like from her head.

Personally, I found narrative structure awkward, both within each chapter and through the book as a whole. In the arsenic section, for instance, Blum dramaticizes the story of a young girl who ate a berry pie from a cafe and died, breathing life into her tale. Then she starts a new paragraph, states “something similar happened the previous October at another cafe,” then mentions “the cafe is now closed.” When, exactly, is “now?” In July, when the girl died? In 2010 when the book was published? Confusing and irrelevant. We never find out why the girl died. We move on to a brief history of arsenic poisoning, it’s decline when it was discovered it could be traced in autopsy, and then, oddly, Blum covers the process of opening a body for autopsy. It’s the type of writing weirdness that leads me to wonder what she’s trying to do. The arsenic chapter continues in its hopscotch development by describing the pathology lab, then gang violence in the city from Prohibition. While one can argue for creating a mood, it leaves the reader largely unclear as to theme. Prohibition continues to ricochet into chapters, and the story related may or may not be pertinent to the poison discussed. By no means is the logic-challenged narrative confined to the arsenic chapter; the chapter on mercury poisoning contains no actual intentional poisonings and then discusses the case of an industrial toxin, tetraethyl lead, used to prevent engine knock.

Sections are redeeming, however. As a science dork, but generally history-impaired, I find it interesting to have the history of chemical science come alive. Nowadays, we cringe to hear about cyanide and arsenic; in 1920, they were common in the home as pesticides. In fact, arsenic was still in topical medicines. Both arsenic and lead were used in makeup (and still are, dear reader). How did society learn about toxicity from these substances, except through accidental deaths, men like Norris and Gettler, and the suffering of thousands of dogs, cats and rabbits?

The book also casts a whole new angle on Prohibition, when we learn wood alcohol is toxic. Learning that our own government deliberately poisoned alcohol with various substances in order to discourage drinking was shocking. Can you imagine that now? What if agents were out there adding arsenic to soda pop, or Agent Orange to tobacco (do be quiet, dear conspiracy theorists)? It kind of echoes current drug epidemics where people go on using despite the possibility of very real likelihood of self-harm or death.

Other interesting mentions include a section on radium poisoning. Can you imagine buying a tonic made from radioactive materials that is supposed to heal you? Or having your doctor suggest you use it? Me either, but it wasn’t that long ago when it was done. The FDA, when it was created, was so toothless that it took scores of people dying and FDR to give it power to regulate pharmaceutical claims three decades later (Government: 1; Capitalism: negative 1000).

Ultimately, while sections were interesting and thought provoking, the narrative was far too jumbled to make reading enjoyable. I’m not quite sure what Blum’s chief focus was, but this mix of newspaper articles, court reports, New York history and scientific research is blended too well, and contains a few too many ingredients. I can’t, in good conscience, say that I’d recommend it, unless someone wanted a few creative ideas for 1900s murder mysteries.

There’s clearly a moral to her story here. Too bad it’s so torturous to find.

About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
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1 Response to The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum, or how chemistry without regulation kills people

  1. Pingback: Book Review: The Poisoner's Handbook - Doctor CSI

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