Friday, July 8, 2011

Poison in Manhattan

Deborah Blum's The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York is a book with something for everyone. At its heart it is the story of New York City's first medical examiner Charles Norris, and his toxicologist Alexander Gettler. At the time of Norris’s appointment in 1918 the coroner's office was run by incompetent political cronies with no background in medicine or science. The two men worked tirelessly to turn the office into a model of forensic science. But don't be fooled by that dry description.

Each chapter has a poison as its title, and each chronicles events where poison plays a role. Are you a fan of CSI? The two men use their skills to discover murders by poison (chloroform) and to exonerate the innocent (thallium).

Are you interested in the history of New York City during prohibition? Blum takes you through the traffic clogged streets of Manhattan (carbon monoxide) and into the speakeasies (methyl alcohol). And if you've never understood the role of the US government in enforcing prohibition by endangering the lives of its citizens, you'll be interested in the story of this marriage of chemistry and politics.

Do you like stories about unlikely heroes? There could hardly be an odder couple than the patrician Norris, a blue-blooded descendant of bankers, and the Hungarian Jewish immigrant Gettler, who loved betting on the horses, and whose Irish Catholic in-laws brewed beer throughout Prohibition one floor below his flat.

Are you a science geek? Blum explains in detail the chemical makeup of the poisons and the lab tests used to detect them. (I skipped some of this).

All in all, I found it an entertaining and informative read.

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