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Book Review: The Poisoner’s Handbook

poisoners handbookThe Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York was one of the most entertaining books I have ever read. At times the chemistry overwhelmed me a bit, but wow–what a fascinating read. It is a history of poison, a history of forensics, a history of dirty deeds done by dangerous drugs (alliteration!), and best of all, it features a Chief Medical Examiner named…wait for it…Charles Norris. That’s right, the first Chief Medical Examiner in New York was Chuck Norris.

I’ve always been a fan of books that could stand on their own as collections of medical oddities and weird little facts. This book has them all.

  • Too much silver will eventually make you turn blue
  • Bootleg liquor is more dangerous than you know, blindness jokes aside
  • Chloroform got its start as an aid to burglars
  • The first plant that forensic scientists learned to detect in a human body was the same one that a lot of people were smoking

If you’ve ever read any of Mary Roaches’ books–Stiff, Spook, or Bonk, about cadavers, the soul, and the history of sex studies, respectively–then you might view them in the same way. Each book is a mountain of weird facts and the books themselves seem like excuses to say “Did you know that?”  Times a million.

But for me Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook is a chase. I was absolutely thrilled to watch the bad guys try to adapt, in the form of switching chemicals, every time Chuck Norris and his forensics crew learned to detect a new poison in a victim’s body. Absolutely wonderful, fascinating stuff, not to get too technical about it.

So for you brave few who read this as part of the book club, here are a couple of discussion questions about The Poisoner’s Handbook:

1. Did you enjoy it? Why?Or Why not?

2. Did you struggle with any of the chemistry? Skim it? (my hand is raised)

3. Who would you recommend it to?

4. Has it persuaded you to quit drinking moonshine?

And of course, if you or a loved one are about to start a life of nefarious back-alley dealings, The Poisoner’s Handbook would make a great Christmas gift!


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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Jason December 3, 2010, 3:44 pm

    Great review Josh. I have this on my to read list.

  • Big Will December 4, 2010, 10:40 am

    I just placed this on the schedule of gifts to purchase this holiday season.

    Thanks for the great review. My girl itches for HBO’s “Boardwalk Empire” and this appears to appeal to the hunger created by that show.


    • Josh Hanagarne December 4, 2010, 8:47 pm

      Thanks Will, you’ll love it. If you buy it through the link on this site I think I get about a 10 cent commission, just sayin’.

  • Heather December 6, 2010, 9:27 am

    Is on my list of “to purchase/download”–and no, I doubt I’ll stop drinking moonshine. Chuck Norris was the first NY Forensics Guy. . . THAT is TRULY f’kucin’ COOL! 🙂

  • Jay Lampas December 7, 2010, 12:27 am

    Halfway through the book now. I would have finished it in a few days but it is currently my “field book”, which means I only get a few hours with it every other week. It’s already kept me up in my sleeping bag in -5 temps til 1 AM. so…

    1. enjoying it. i love books that tie in multiple strings of society/life/science, in this case the detective stories, politics and chemistry interwoven for a damn interesting story.

    2. Always been kind of a chem dork, so I’m liking that part.

    3. Already recommended it to my Dad and a few 2nd Nature staff.

    4. Blindness, whatevs. Not gonna let that kill my buzz.

    • Josh Hanagarne December 7, 2010, 2:48 pm

      All right, man. We’ll hit the absinthe soon at NRG.

  • Pauline December 9, 2010, 6:52 pm

    This is the kind of review that makes me want to get the book NOW, Josh. Thanks for an excellent post. Will I live long enough to read all the books on my to-read list?