Wednesday, November 2, 2011

Late RIP Post: The Poisoner's Handbook

The last book I read for the RIP Challenge (and finished hours before my wrap-up post but didn't bother to go back and change it) was the thoroughly awesome The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York by Deborah Blum. I loved this book. I don't say that very often but this was the perfect read for me. It had the right amount of history and science and murder to fit right in the niche that my brain is happiest in.

This book won't be for everyone. As you can tell from the title, the birth of forensic medicine is going to include a lot of details about gory (yet fascinating things) -- autopsies, brain tissue disintegration for testing, examination of lung tissue after poisoning and all sorts of other bloody tests. There's also no avoiding the animal testing that had to happen at the time to measure the effects of various toxins in order to have reliable data, the kind necessary to secure convictions and send murderers to the electric chair.

I'm mostly against animal testing and possibly against the death penalty and certainly against murdering family members but I still found every aspect of this book fascinating. It made me regret that I didn't take those three extra classes to get a minor in chemistry. My scientific background helped me through the book but I don't think one is necessary to understand what Blum is presenting. Her love for chemistry also comes through in her writing and I thought it was refreshing and highly readable.

On cloud nine,


  1. Sounds like a fabulous book.
    My favourite ever course at university was forensic anthropology!

    I have to say I am mostly against animal testing (animal testing just can't be replaced for some immunology work).
    I am absolutely and unreservedly against the death penalty.

  2. Sounds like a worthwhile read. No, I've never been pro animal testing, though I disagree totally with those animal rights nutters who go round threatening and trying to harm scientists who work in labs. And I'm glad we don't have the death penalty here.

  3. I thought this one was fascinating but I was hoping that it would focus a little more on individual case studies and not the scientific aspect.

  4. This has been on my wishlist for ages. it also seems to tick all the boxes in my voyeuristic mind :) It is illustrated? Would it work well in audiobook?

  5. Al - I knew we could be friends!

    Tracy - It's kind of shocking in this book how the appeals process was so short and execution was all but guaranteed. I guess this wasn't too far from Victorian times after all.

    Lola - And I liked the science of it -- but I can see how that wouldn't appeal to everyone!

    Alex - There are no illustrations. I think it would work as an audiobook if you are familiar with chemistry. The tone is quite conversational and light. But otherwise, I think some parts might take a couple of read-throughs to follow the science.

  6. Jenners - That's what you say now. But when I become a time-traveling, scientific serial killer ...

  7. This looks interesting. I hesitate with the science, but if you say it is better than Devil in the White City, it may be worth a look!

  8. Tif - Well, it was better for me ... ;) But I still think you might like all of the murdery bits.