The 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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