Wednesday, March 23, 2011

The Poisoner's Handbook

The Book: The Poisoner's Handbook

The Writer: Deborah Blum

The Dealio: This is the true tale of- as the book cover states- 'Murder and the Birth of Forensic Science in the Jazz Age'. Covering a relatively short period of time (1910-1936), and a specific locale (NYC and the newly hatched offices of first Chief Medical Examiner, Charles Norris, and first Chief Toxicologist, Alexander Gettler), this is equal parts murder mystery, political pot-boiler, chemistry primer and adventure. Blum writes in a spirited, enthusiastic way that snags your attention immediately- then never lets go.
Each chapter begins with a chemical description of a particular poison, then proceeds to illustrate cases highlighting its appearance in popular culture. Most importantly, it is the saga of two very determined, perfectionistic and quietly heroic men of science, who worked fearlessly, and often without appreciation or, well, even pay- to drag their newborn into the modern age and up into the spotlight. From there, forensics would fill many roles: crime detection, the recognition of threats to public welfare and health and even the creation of the FDA.

The Grading Session: 4.89 pengies out of 5. Clearly, well-researched, this story reads like fiction...but definitely is not. That is both thrilling and chilling. One particular case makes you wait 12 years for the villains to get their just desserts. But usually there is a payoff in every sequence. Too, the writer is very visual in her prose and I found I could picture everybody she introduced during the run of her pack of tales. I got a frisson of terror listening to the description of the 'dial painter' -later called 'radium'-girls who were instructed to wet the tips of their brushes with their tongues between brushstrokes, as they dipped the brushes into radium and applied the face of the watches. Yikes. Along the way, we rub shoulders with the likes of WoodrowWilson and Marie Curie, Mayors Jimmy Walker and Fiorella Laguardia, FDR and Jazz Age/Great Depression stars of stage and screen. What is not to love? Well, I'll tell you. There is one thaang, and it is the reason this book did not get 5 perfect, whole pengies:the reader, who has a strange cadence at times and mispronounces many words. At one time, she stops speaking so abruptly, I though the audio had actually died.
Speaking of which: which are the deadliest poisons? Why not read TPH yourself and find out? You won't be sorry. PS: I did not find this book to be horrendously gory, but if you have a tender might not be over the moon for this one.

Lessons Learned: There are a lot of criminals out there. Fortunately, every so often,a couple of sharp-minded individuals arrive upon the scene and correct the balance of that whole good/evil area. Aaaand, know how your mom used to say, 'just because everyone else is doing it, doesn't make it right!' ? Well, sorry, but she was right: after reading about people's abeager, playful misuse of radioactive elements for fun, and the wholesale consumption of wood alcohol during Prohibition, man, you just gotta say, 'What were you thinking, peeps?!' Lastly: if it seems to be too good to be true, it probably is not only not too good, it is probably detrimental to your health, your sanity or your hair. Word.

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