Rated Reads

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

by Deborah Blum

Rated: Mild

Most Americans today cannot recall a time when one could pop down to the corner drugstore for some cyanide, a bit of mercury, or a few doses of radium. Many of those same individuals also believe that there is too much government intrusion into their daily lives in the modern world and imagine a time when United States citizens enjoyed much more freedom. This book describes just such a time: a few decades after the industrial revolution, but a number of years before the formation of the Food and Drug Administration (FDA).

Deborah Blum weaves the origins of the FDA against the backdrop of Prohibition, the Great Depression, and the early days of forensic investigation. This is essentially the story of two men, Doctors Norris and Gettler, who dedicated their professional lives not only to solving crimes using scientific methods, but also demanding that state and federal governments do more to protect ordinary citizens from dangerous chemicals. It is a richly detailed account of the classic story of corporate greed versus scientific proof that we continue to observe in our era.

The prose is very smooth, and a reader does not need to know anything about chemistry or pathology to enjoy this volume. The author uses proper anatomical terms throughout, but does not dwell on gory descriptions; she describes what needs to be understood and moves on. My only objection is that it was too short. I would have loved another half-dozen chapters.

Rated: Mild; nearly none. Four quoted references to taking the Lord’s name in vain and two usages of a single mild term.

— Reviewed by Craig Smith

Craig Smith is chief medical officer of Tacoma Cat Hospital. In addition to providing book reviews on Rated Reads, he podcasts about feline health issues through iTunes and www.tacomacat.com.

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Poisoners Handbook
  • The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York
  • by Deborah Blum
  • Rated: Mild
  • Genre: Nonfiction
  • Reviewer: