Book review: The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum

Imaginative tale a magical alchemy of science and creativity

The Poisoner's Handbook Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York Deborah Blum Penguin Books 2011 Hardcover $20.00

The Poisoner’s Handbook Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York
Deborah Blum
Penguin Books

With The Poisoner’s Handbook for a title, you would be forgiven for thinking that this would be a guidebook to murder. It is actually about the evolution of toxicology and modern chemistry. I know what you’re thinking: “Excellent … a book about chemistry.” Thoughts screaming with sarcasm, you move to dump this magazine in the recycle bin. Please don’t. Elegantly written with a subtle mordant humour, this book illuminates the birth of forensic pathology and its increasing importance and influence upon the Justice system and modern society.

The appointment of Dr. Charles Norris as the new chief medical examiner for New York City in January, 1918 is the effective beginning of this tale.

Norris’ goal is to organize and professionalize the NYC medical examiner’s offi ce, a department previously headed by a notorious drunkard and riddled with graft. That he accomplishes what he does is a testament to his singlemindedness and the work of his chief chemist, Dr. Alexander Gettler. “If any one person deserves the appellation ‘father of toxicology and forensic chemistry in the United States,’ it is Dr. Gettler.”

The incredible variety of lethal toxins that surrounded most people in the 1920s is amazing; strychnine in medical tonics, cyanide used in photographic processing and methyl alcohol masquerading as whiskey. As the subtitle suggests, the Jazz age was in full swing, with Prohibition and all of the evils that were released from trying to slake America’s thirst for booze. The incredible concoctions that were formulated from plasticizers and distilled perfumes created intoxicating and deadly brews. The fact that people were dropping dead by the hundreds every week did nothing to stop them from drinking. In fact, statistics actually show an increase in public intoxication and impaired driving.

As prohibition winds down, our indefatigable scientists turn their attention to carbon monoxide, warnings about cigarette smoke, leaded gasoline and radioactivity. This is an amazing look at 20th century history, science and culture, packed with interesting detail.

A masterful compilation of rollicking tales and soulful commentary
Where I Belong Alan Doyle Doubleday Canada 2014 Hardcover $32.95

Where I Belong
Alan Doyle
Doubleday Canada

This book is an extended love letter from Alan Doyle (well-known front man of Great Big Sea) to the people of his Petty Harbour hometown, his family and an era of life in Newfoundland that has ended. And homemade bread — 13,870 loaves worth by his calculations, on breakfast alone. Speaking of bread, the recipe he includes is one of my favourite vignettes of the whole book. It reminded me of asking my grandmother for her recipe. “Enough flour and water until it feels right,” was her reply. Alan’s mother’s bread is a character in and of itself and this book is filled with colourful ones. Like old Frank Brake, a fisherman who lived in a used boxcar on the wharf. Tough as the rocks that surround Petty Harbour, he looms larger than life in several tales.

If you came of age in the 1980s, you’ll relate to many of the musical references and appreciate why Doyle is a Montreal Canadiens fan. You’ll also remember the power of the Church. Newfoundland had a denominational school system back then and most of society was divided into Catholic or Protestant. In Petty Harbour they split to either side of the harbour and Doyle tells us there was one church, one school and one store per side. Though the Church plays a formative role in Doyle’s early life, it mostly serves to make him question why things are the way they are.

Filled with joy and self-mocking humour, this book tells a story of humble beginnings and lots of hard work, from cutting cod tongues (age 11) to playing six nights a week for two years in the pubs of St. John’s. As he says early on in the book, “spend exactly all of your time making the most of what you have and exactly none of your time whining about what you don’t have.” Excellent advice. This is a lovely book, by a lovely man. I agree with Jann Arden who says in the forward, by the time you finish you will want to sit at a “giant, long table” and meet everyone he’s introduced us to over the course of this journey. Not bad for a Harbour dog.

1 Comment to “Book review: The Poisoner’s Handbook by Deborah Blum”

  1. Waited for this book from when
    Alan first started writing, It was more than worth the wait

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