Book Look - Poisoner's Handbook, Deborah Blum

I thoroughly enjoyed this nonfiction account of poison, prohibition, jazz, justice, and the birth of forensic science in America. The book is loosely organized by poisons, with chapters devoted to poisons from pedestrian (arsenic, cyanide, carbon dioxide, nicotine, various toxic alcohols) to exotic (mercury, chloroform, radium). Along the way the author, a Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer, invites us on a leisurely stroll through a fascinating period in US history, an era in which thugs regularly chloroformed whole families in order to rob their house; arsenic was so commonly used to bump off rich relatives, it came to be known as "the inheritance powder"; cobalt-colored "blue men" poisoned themselves for profit; "radium girls" exhaled radium gas as their skeletons literally disintegrated; products sold over-the-counter regularly contained quantities of lethal substances; and the government knowingly poisoned alcohols that the bootleggers regularly sold to the unwitting public.

Not hooked yet? What if I told you that in addition to all of the above, the author includes detailed accounts of some of the most notorious poison murders of the era? And what if I told you that your journey would include a panoramic overview of New York City during the jazz age, including vignettes devoted to speakeasies, celebrities, and socialites, corrupt Tamany Hall politicians, drunken coroners, mobsters, tenements, ruthless industrialists, and body-snatching undertakers? And what if I told you that by the end of the novel you'll be able to speak intelligently about the chemical properties that cause cyanide to be lethal, the physiological explanation for why alcoholics hold their liquor better than novice drinkers, an easy test that infallibly proves the presence of thallium in tissue, and the steps by which brain tissue can be mashed, steamed, mixed with various acids, distilled and separated in order to reveal the telltale markers of nicotine poisoning?

Honestly, haven't enjoyed a non-fiction book this much in a long time. Yes, the author sometimes wanders off on tangents, and the depth/detail of her storytelling is necessarily constrained by the availability of historical records, but I doubt you'll care. I certainly didn't.

Just one caution: you may wish to consider the extent to which you decide to share your newly-acquired expertise with your spouse and close friends. They may find your new zeal and enthusiasm re. all things poisonous just a little offputting ...!

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