Last semester I was fortunate to hear Deborah Blum speak at the university where I teach, and I knew from her entertaining and informative talk that her book was going to be a treat. Her topic is “Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York,” and her book is The Poisoner’s Handbook (2010). Early in her talk, she showed us her Victorian poison ring, which pops open so a poisoner could quickly dump poison into someone else’s food or drink, and said that “people don’t like to eat with me anymore!”
The book is nonfiction, but Blum herself sees the connection between her research and crime fiction, writing:
There exists a kind of murder mystery pleasure to the subject of poinsons; crime novelists, especially in the early twentieth century, have written them into countless tales of intrigue. I’ve always admired the stylish writing of those vintage novels…. (p. 280)
She points to Agatha Christie’s use of strychnine in 1920 as an example. Yet Blum also recognizes that the stories she tells are (literally) deadly serious. Her tale examines how New York City’s fledgling office of the chief medical examiner, Charles Norris, examined poisoning, devoting chapters to various toxins like chloroform and arsenic, as well as carbon monoxide and Prohibition-era bootleg alcohol. It’s a story of an ongoing battle between poisoners and scientists who try to understand — and prove in court — what happened. Each chapter has anecdotes about investigations into tragedies and the people involved.
The science is readable, and Blum’s sense of humor shows through here, as it did in her talk. “Carbon monoxide,” she writes, “can be considered as a kind of chemical thug. It suffocates its victims simply by muscling oxygen out of the way” (p. 137).
In her talk, Blum said she likes her book because it’s about ordinary people making choices, not celebrities, and because we still live with ready access to poisons — some of her information is still useful to readers today. I think it would be especially useful to a mystery writer!
When asked about the danger of copycat criminals learning from her work, she pointed out that it’s easier to get information from the Internet and that she’s certainly not the first to write about poisons. Another question concerned animal rights, in that she portrays the chemist Alexander Gettler as a hero although he used animal research (not to mention digging up human corpses from the potter’s field for research) — Blum won a Pulitzer for a newspaper series on primate research — and she said that “No one thought like that in the 1920s”; moreover, Gettler was not gratuitously cruel in his research.
Like her talk, Blum’s book is entertaining as well as informative, and mystery readers who like nonfiction will enjoy it.
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