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'The Poisoner's Handbook': CSI's Jazz Age Roots

The Poisoner's Handbook

The poisoner, like all who commit murder most foul, acts with malice aforethought. What sets the poisoner apart is not the amount of malice but the amount, and the quality, of forethought: Poisoning requires planning, patience and, if the victim is a lover or family member, a breed of malevolence so icy and affectless that the act might well be described as a crime of dispassion.

For much of history, the poisoner got away with murder. The most frequently used agents mimicked common illnesses, and even when telltale traces of a toxic chemical lingered in a body, science lacked a basic understanding of the biochemical pathways by which the poison went about its sinister purpose. Without that knowledge, tests were crude, proof was lacking, and many poisoners eluded justice.

Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Deborah Blum's new book, The Poisoner's Handbook, fixes on the moment in history when criminal science finally began to catch up, when two men gave birth to modern forensic toxicology in a bright laboratory at New York's Bellevue Hospital during the early decades of the 20th century.

Charles Norris became New York City's first chief medical examiner in 1918, and promptly instituted a wave of reforms that turned a corrupt, indolent coroner's office into a tireless, internationally respected model of criminal investigation. Before his tenure, toxicological evidence was widely derided or simply ignored, but Norris — a gregarious figure whose missionary zeal convinced even the most pecuniary city administrators to cough up funds for his department — changed all that.

He didn't do so singlehandedly. Blum describes the trailblazing work of Alexander Gettler, Norris' head toxicologist, a dry, quiet but rigorously thorough technician. It was Gettler who created chemical analyses to detect new poisons and refined the tests for previously known agents, so that smaller and smaller trace amounts could be used in evidence.

The best science writing avails itself of both metaphor and music — metaphor to make even the driest, most abstract concepts available to the reader's senses, and music to ensure that this metaphoric language is lively, engaging and clear. Blum excels at both, as when she describes how glittery crystals of arsenic reveal themselves during a series of autopsies ("Poison fanned through the bodies like a sparkling dust blown by a prevailing wind"), or when she lets us see what Norris and Gettler see as they go about their investigations. The pages of The Poisoner's Handbook are awash in color: the blue flames of Bunsen burners, the rich maroon of Gettler's macerated-liver-tissue slurries, and the bright vermillion blood that denotes death by carbon monoxide.

Blum organizes each chapter around a different poison featured in a case Norris and Gettler investigate — chloroform, mercury, arsenic, cyanide, etc. — but weaves a broader, overtly political tale as well. Industrial manufacturing had just arrived in New York City and was already changing it in hidden ways only a scientist could expose. Blum shows Norris challenging the manufacturers of products containing lead, thallium and — in one particularly chilling chapter — the makers of glow-in-the-dark wristwatches who employed teenage girls to paint watch dials with lethally radioactive radium. (Read Blum's account of the case of a Yonkers hospital orderly systematically dispatching patients with chloroform.)

But in any narrative of New York during Prohibition, one poison looms larger than all the rest. It was, after all, a time when the government fought to stay one step ahead of bootleggers by finding novel ways to denature (read: poison) industrial alcohol. But in speak-easies all over town, the tainted liquor flowed freely, and death by alcohol poisoning surged. Norris regarded Prohibition — and in particular the government's practice of poisoning its own people — as a great evil responsible for thousands of unnecessary deaths and said so, publicly and vehemently.

If, in these passages and elsewhere, Blum lets a note of hagiography creep into her portrait of the man-as-crusader, she backs it up with plenty of documented examples of Norris' stalwart commitment to the public good. Rigorously researched and thoroughly engaging, The Poisoner's Handbook is a compelling, comprehensive portrait of the time and place that transformed criminal investigation, and made it much more difficult for that most insidious of murderers to escape the law.

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Glen Weldon
Glen Weldon is a host of NPR's Pop Culture Happy Hour podcast. He reviews books, movies, comics and more for the NPR Arts Desk.