March 2010

Forensic pioneers follow the trail of a silent killer

By Deborah Blum
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Fans of television’s “CSI” and its myriad spin-offs will no doubt find much of morbid interest in Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook, a lushly detailed account of how the discipline and profession of forensic science emerged from the “poison playground” of 1920s New York to become an indispensable argumentative tool in the modern-day crime-fighter’s arsenal. In particular, Blum focuses on the turbulent lives and trailblazing careers of the city’s chief medical examiner, Charles Norris, and his trusty toxicologist, Alexander Gettler. Through their diligence, persistence and selfless devotion to the cause, Norris and Gettler laid the intellectual groundwork for a new—and potentially invaluable—field of study in the span of a few short decades. All the while, the pair waged an uphill battle against popular (and political) scientific ignorance and faced resistance, often fierce, from clueless city-hall bureaucrats and budget-cutters.

Known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning work as a journalist and science writer, Blum displays a remarkable gift for narrative storytelling in The Poisoner’s Handbook, weaving together, from seemingly disparate elements, an old-fashioned tale of suspense that is as readable as it is densely informative. Each chapter of the book takes its title from a particular periodic element or compound, introducing the reader to these lethal substances in the kind of vivid language novelists often utilize to introduce their main characters. While the pages are populated with plenty of human villains, these killer compounds are the book’s real antagonists. Whether used as a murder weapon or ingested accidentally, each poses a unique and complex puzzle for Norris and Gettler, prompting the pair to devise ever more cunning procedures for the detection, in human tissue, of lethal quantities and trace amounts alike. They work tirelessly, selflessly, even courageously at fine-tuning and perfecting their craft, using their own meager salaries to cover laboratory expenses and generally learning as they go—at times from their own deadly mistakes.

The Poisoner’s Handbook is that rare nonfiction book that has something for everyone, whether you are a true-crime aficionado, a political-history buff, a science geek or simply a fan of well-written narrative suspense.

Brian Corrigan lives and writes in Florence, Alabama.

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The Poisoner’s Handbook

The Poisoner’s Handbook

By Deborah Blum
Penguin Press
ISBN 9781594202438

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