Book Review: The Poisoner’s Handbook

The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensics in Jazz Age New York

Deborah Blum


336 pages

As a teenager, I was always drawn to true crime.  It was pretty much the only genre I read, starting with Helter Skelter, which I read countless times, trickling down to the likes of Ann Rule and other fast paced, non fiction crime stories.  Although I have gotten sick of the typical true crime books, sometimes one comes along that intrigues me enough to pick it up.  The Poisoner’s Handbook is one such book.

The book focuses on New York City’s first medical examiner, Charles Norris.  Norris and his right hand man, Alexander Gettler, paved the way for forensic science during the jazz age and made many bold discoveries that were the result of extremely hard work and perseverance.

Each chapter was chronological through the first two and a half decades of the twentieth century and each chapter focused on a different poison.  Each chapter was part scientific, with the chemical breakdown of the poison and the diligent work on behalf of Norris and Gettler on determining the presence of said poison in a cadaver and the effects of the poison.  The other part focused on certain cases in which the poison was used to maim or kill someone.

Personally, I could have done without all the scientific information, which bogged down the book for me.  When I do read true crime, it is for the story, and in that respect The Poisoner’s Handbook did not let me down. The story of the working girl on her lunch break who died after eating a piece of pie at a local diner . . . the dangerous poisons that are found in household items, and so on and so forth.

Had the book included more crime stories and less chemistry, it would have hit the perfect note for me.  Instead, I found myself bored for some of the book.  Despite that, the good parts outweighed the bad.

Other Reviews:

You’ve GOTTA Read This!

Sophisticated Dorkiness

A Book a Week

I purchased this book from Borders.

10 Responses

  1. That giant hand on the cover is pretty entertaining. It’s like the Hand of Doom, ready to poison the entire city below.

  2. Too bad it didn’t quite click because the premise is pretty fascinating!

  3. Sorry the science didn’t quite work for you — I thought it was pretty great, but I’m interested in that along with crime books. Even so, the crazy things that happened around that time were entertaining.

  4. I’m not much of a true crime person but I actually think it would be interesting to read about this! Crazy stuff I bet.

  5. True crime is good, I don’t read it often but quite enjoyed it in this book. I have to say that I really enjoyed the science too though, for the most part 🙂

  6. Huh. I don’t read much true crime but this does sound kind of interesting.

  7. True crime is not a favorite of mine — too scary. But I’ve read good things about this one. I’ll keep an eye out for it.

    Rose City Reader

  8. The science probably wouldn’t work for me either. My husband would probably get really nervous if I started reading this book!

  9. Sounds intriguing. After Truman Capote, I’m not as resistant toward true crime books, knowing they can be just as well-written. I’ll check out this one.

  10. I’ll probably read this one during RIP this year. I bet I’ll do a bit better than you because I almost took a chemistry degree in college. We’ll see!

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