The Poisoner's Handbook

The Poisoner’s Handbook

Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

Written by:

Additional Formats
  • Hardcover
  • ISBN 9781594202438
  • 336 Pages
  • Penguin Press
  • Adult


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Video From “The Chemist’s War” (Slate Magazine), by Deborah BlumPulitzer Prize-winning science writer Deborah Blum follows New York City’s first forensic scientists to discover a fascinating Jazz Age story of chemistry and detection, poison and murder.

Deborah Blum, writing with the high style and skill for suspense that is characteristic of the very best mystery fiction, shares the untold story of how poison rocked Jazz Age New York City. In The Poisoner’s Handbook Blum draws from highly original research to track the fascinating, perilous days when a pair of forensic scientists began their trailblazing chemical detective work, fighting to end an era when untraceable poisons offered an easy path to the perfect crime.

Drama unfolds case by case as the heroes of The Poisoner’s Handbook—chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler—investigate a family mysteriously stricken bald, Barnum and Bailey’s Famous Blue Man, factory workers with crumbling bones, a diner serving poisoned pies, and many others. Each case presents a deadly new puzzle and Norris and Gettler work with a creativity that rivals that of the most imaginative murderer, creating revolutionary experiments to tease out even the wiliest compounds from human tissue. Yet in the tricky game of toxins, even science can’t always be trusted, as proven when one of Gettler’s experiments erroneously sets free a suburban housewife later nicknamed “America’s Lucretia Borgia” to continue her nefarious work.

From the vantage of Norris and Gettler’s laboratory in the infamous Bellevue Hospital it becomes clear that killers aren’t the only toxic threat to New Yorkers. Modern life has created a kind of poison playground, and danger lurks around every corner. Automobiles choke the city streets with carbon monoxide; potent compounds, such as morphine, can be found on store shelves in products ranging from pesticides to cosmetics. Prohibition incites a chemist’s war between bootleggers and government chemists while in Gotham’s crowded speakeasies each round of cocktails becomes a game of Russian roulette. Norris and Gettler triumph over seemingly unbeatable odds to become the pioneers of forensic chemistry and the gatekeepers of justice during a remarkably deadly time. A beguiling concoction that is equal parts true crime, twentieth-century history, and science thriller, The Poisoner’s Handbook is a page-turning account of a forgotten New York.
The Poisoner's Handbook

The Poisoner’s Handbook

Written by: Deborah Blum


“The Poisoner’s Handbook is aninventive history that, like arsenic, mixed into blackberry pie, goesdown with ease.”—The New York Times Book Review

“Blum illuminates these tales of Norris and Gettler and their era witha dedication and exuberance that reflect the men themselves. Not onlyis The Poisoner’s Handbook asthrilling as any CSI episode, but it also offers something even better:an education in how forensics really works.” —The Washington Post

“Blum, a longtime newspaper writer and now a professor of sciencejournalism at the University of Wisconsin, skillfully explains thechemistry behind Gettler’s experiments. Her book is sure to appeal tomystery lovers, science nerds and history buffs. . . .”—Associated Press

“Fast-paced and suspenseful, ThePoisoner’s Handbook breathes deadly life into the RoaringTwenties.”—FinancialTimes

“All the nitty-gritty about death by arsenic, by thallium, by woodalcohol, is here in precise, gruesome detail.  It makes for astomach-turning read. . . . .Ms. Blum’s combination of chemistry andcrime fiction creates a vicious, page-turning story that reads morelike Raymond Chandler than Madame Curie.”—New York Observer

“In this bubbling beaker of a book, [Blum] mixes up a heady potion offorensic toxicology, history and true crime. . . . The Poisoner’s Handbook will getinto your head. You’ll find yourself questioning the chemicals in oureveryday lives. What’s really in our food, cosmetics, pesticides,cleaning supplies, children’s toys and pet dinners? This isn’t just agood read. It’s a summons to study labels, research, think and act.”—Dallas Morning News

“The Poisoner’s Handbook succeeds as science, as history, asentertainment and as an argument for the power and purpose of popularscience writing.”—MilwaukeeJournal-Sentinel

 “One thinks of Erik Larson’s Devil in the White City . . . a bookthat gave splendiferously disgusting descriptions of horrible murdersand did it so dexterously and intelligently that even readers whowouldn’t normally read a true crime book were happily sucked in.Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’sHandbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New Yorkis that kind of book.” —New Haven Advocate

“Blum has cooked up a delicious, addictive brew:  murder, forensictoxicology, New York City in the 20s, the biochemistry ofpoison.  I loved this book. I knocked it back in one go and now Iwant more!”—Mary Roach, author of Bonk: The Curious Coupling of Scienceand Sex and Stiff: The Curious Livesof Human Cadavers

“The Poisoner’s Handbook opensoneriveting murder case after another in this chronicle of Jazz Agechemical crimes where the real-life twists and turns are as startlingas anything in fiction. Deborah Blum turns us all into forensicdetectives by the end of this expertly written, dramatic page-turnerthat will transform the way you think about the power of science tothreaten and save our lives.”—MatthewPearl, author of The Last Dickensand The Dante Club

“The Poisoner’s Handbook is awonderfully compelling hybrid of history and science built aroundeccentric characters. One scene reads like Patricia Cornwell and thenext like Oliver Sacks. From movie stars and aristocrats to homicidalgrandmothers and entrepreneurial gangsters, from the government’spoisoning of alcohol during Prohibition to the dangers of radiation andautomobile pollution, Blum follows an amazing array of poignanttragedies through the laboratory of these crusading public servants.—Michael Sims, author of Apollo’s Fire and Adam’s Navel

“With the pacing and rich characterization of a first-rate suspensenovelist, Blum makes science accessible and fascinating.” —PublishersWeekly, starred review

“Caviar for true-crime fans and science buffs alike.” —Kirkus Reviews

“Formative figures in forensics, Norris and Gettler become fascinatingcrusaders in Blum’s fine depiction of their work in the law-floutingatmosphere of Prohibition-era New York.”—Booklist


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