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Book Review: The Poisoner's Handbook
blaisepascal
Over the past few days I've been reading The Poisoner's Handbook, a non-fiction history of the early days of forensic medicine as seen by the Medical Examiners office of New York City from 1910-1940 (dates rough, by memory).

The book is written in 11 chapters, plus a prologue and epilogue. Each chapter is named after a poison (chloroform, wood alcohol, arsenic, etc) and covers 2-4 years worth of time. Each chapter also features a police case from that time period involving the poison in question, meticulously researched from contemporary accounts, as a way of framing the issues of the time. That isn't to say that each chapter is about the poison, or primarily about the case in question, but it forms a narrative frame to capture the reader.

The overall story is really the story of two men, Dr. Charles Norris, the first Chief Medical Examiner for the City of New York, and Dr. Alexander Gettler, the head toxicologist, and their professional goals of turning their respective disciplines from laughing stocks to respected professions. The story begins by showing the state of the City Coroner in the 1910's, and the events which led to the switch to a Medical Examiner system and the hiring of Dr. Norris. The last chapter covers both Dr. Norris' death in 1935 and Dr. Gettler's retirement in 1958. In the 17 years Dr. Norris was ME, you had the rise and fall of Prohibition, as well as the roaring 20's and the beginnings of the Great Depression. The story, in addition to discussing poisons, shows the effect of those social upheavals through the lens of the Medical Examiner's office -- Dr. Norris campaigned against Prohibition, citing the numbers of deaths from wood alcohol poisoning, among other things.

It is an easy, engaging read. At points, the chemistry gets a bit dodgy (the tendency to describe various poisons (carbon monoxide, methanol, ethanol, etc) as varied combinations of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen is misleading, even if technically correct), but it's not intended to be a chemistry text. I would recommend this book.

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This book has been on my books to read list for some time now. Thanks for your review. I am going to have to put it at the top of my list.

Thank you, I have it on reserve now.

Craig bought it for me and I read it; it was excellent.

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