January 16, 2013

the posioner's handbook: murder and the birth of forensic medicine in jazz age new york

for the past two years, my goal has been to read at least 52 books in one year. and last year i did it! i read all sorts of different kinds of books -- memoirs, non-fiction, fantasy, historical fiction, etc.; some were good and some were not, but it was a great accomplishment for me. especially since i started out the year so slowly, and by july it looked like i was not going to make it. but in the last five months of 2012, i read 40 books! forty. that's insane. (that means that in the first seven months i only read fifteen books. ridiculous.) 

at one point a friend asked if i was retaining any of it, and i said yes, but i'm not sure that's true. looking over my list of books there are definitely some that i totally forgot about or totally forgot the plot of. so in attempt to not only read a lot of books, but also retain some of the information from them, i will try and pick books that i particularly enjoyed (or not) to review and share with you.

the first one, the poisoner's handbook: murder and the birth of forensic medicine in jazz age new york by deborah blum, is one that was recommended to me by a friend who is in the throes of medical school. i think she recommended it because she knows how much i get a kick out of stories of blood and guts.

let me start with this: i'm not sure how to write a book review. so i apologize, in advance, if it's awkward and weird.

to start: this is definitely a book i would recommend. it's not a short book, but it's super interesting. especially if, like me, you enjoy learning about a weird subset of history. 

the poisoner's handbook is separated into eleven chapters about ten different poisons -- chloroform, wood alcohol, cyanide, arsenic, mercury, carbon monoxide (part 1), methyl alcohol, radium, ethyl alcohol, carbon monoxide (part 2) and thallium. it proceeds in chronological order, beginning in 1915 and continuing 1938. each chapter talks about one particular poison: the history of the poison, stories of people using that poison to kill others, the process by which the medical examiner, charles norris, and the toxicologist, alexander gettler, determined which poison was used in the murder, and the result of the subsequent trial. in addition, the author includes anecdotes about new york's history during this period; she includes stories about politicians and prohibition.

all of this can sound a little daunting, but deborah blum does a great job of putting the history and the science with the scandal and intrigue that goes along with poisonings. she hooks you in with the story, gives you a little history, tells a little more of the story, gives you the science, and then tells you the resolution to the story. unfortunately, most of the stories end with the poisoner being acquitted because the science was just too new; jurors had a hard time believing it and defense attorneys could come up with any number of different excuses for what had happened.

 blum's descriptions of the effects of the poisons are sometimes cringe worthy, not because she wrote it poorly, but because these poisons can be pretty brutal to a person's body. in addition, her explanations of the forensic science are not dull and actually make sense, although it is a bit upsetting the number of dogs that were used for experiments so that alexander gettler could better understand each poison.

anyways, it was a good recommendation.
and i hope you enjoy it too, if you decide to check it out.

have you read any good books lately?