Published by Penguin on February 18th, 2010
Genres: Narrative, Non-Fiction
Source: Local Library
My friend, Katie, over at DoingDeweyDecimal ,hosts a nonfiction read each month. For October, she appropriately chose The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. It reads like a modern-day thriller with a fast-pace and in-depth narrative. If you’re looking for a creepy nonfiction book you can’t go wrong with this one! Plus you learn so much about how forensic science is developed. I promise it’s not all dry!
I see poisoners—so calculating, so cold-blooded—as most like the villains of our horror stories. They’re closer to that lurking monster in the closet than some drug-impaired crazy with a gun. I don’t mean to dismiss the latter—both can achieve the same awful results. But the scarier killer is the one who thoughtfully plans his murder ahead, tricks a friend, wife, lover into swallowing something that will dissolve tissue, blister skin, twist the muscles with convulsions, knows all that will happen and does it anyway.
1. How are you liking the book (the organization by poison, the way the science is written, etc)?
This has been one of my most favorite non-fiction books to read. The personal anecdotes of the poisoners and the poisonees was fascinating. Wait, does that make me sound morbid?!?
There are a few spots where the author goes deep into the science and lost me, but those sections were few and far between. Reading The Poisoner’s Handbook inspired me to do a couple of fun experiments with my grandson, like create elephant/dinosaur toothpaste. Although the Little Monkey informed me dinosaurs do not brush their teeth – cheeky little devil, yes?
2. What’s your favorite fun fact or story so far?
Not sure I would call it a fun fact/story; however, the ingenuity of the Medical Examiner, Charles Norris and Toxicologist, Alexander Gettler discovered the keys to unlocking this case. A large immigrant family initially presented with the mom and children with their hair falling out. Soon, two of the children got deathly ill. Ultimately, several members of the family died. The father was arrested and charged with murder as his mother-in-law and some of the children slowly recovered. Without Norris and Gettler’s experimentation and research, the culprit would never have been discovered. Hint: it was not the father.
3. Do you check out the citations in narrative nonfiction like this? If so, did you find the citations in this book satisfactory?
Absolutely! I’m a bit nerdy like that! The Jazz Age was such a pivotal era in history. Medical breakthroughs were happening almost daily. Forensic science exploded during this period. Both Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler were at the forefront of forensic science, especially within the States. Once I finished the book I wanted to learn more about the men behind the book. The citations and Google helped me delve a little deeper.
4. Did you know anything about early forensic science before reading this book? Did anything surprise you?
I knew nothing at all about early forensic science. It’s fascinating to read how Norris and Gettler conducted incredible experiments to discover how someone died. Quite a few of the experiments were gross and had me cringing. The imagination of the two men at creating the tests to figure out how and which poisons affected the body were nothing short of genius.
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To learn more about the author, Deborah Blum visit her Website | Twitter. Public Television did a PBS Special on The Poisoner’s Handbook along with providing an interactive comic book, teacher’s guide, and forensic science timeline. It’s a pretty cool resource for history and science buffs!