Book review – The Poisoner's Handbook

By Grant Jacobs 17/12/2010

If you’re after a last-minute present for a fan of crime writing or popular science, preferably with a morbid bent, Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook* might be the ticket.

Crime fiction–that I read, anyway–usually has a forensic scientist hero struggling to solve a case, battling with local politics, bureaucracy, science and changing criminal landscapes. (And occasionally dodging bullets or other fictional threats.)


But what of the struggle to create the forensic science industry? It, too, battled with local politics, bureaucracy, science and changing criminal landscapes.

Subtitled Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, the lead characters of this work is the Chief Medical Examiner of New York City, Dr. Charles Norris, and toxicologist Alexander Gettler. Norris is appointed under strained political circumstances. His office’s story is told as more than a straight history, with each chapter titled for one poison and cases related to that poison, as well as the years covered.

In this way the book mixes intriguing case stories with the on-going political and scientific struggles.

Overall the book covers 1915 through to 1936, eleven poisons, and contains a bibliography, notes and index to satisfy those seeking further reading.

It’s often said that fact is better than fiction. One of my few gripes is that the condensed case stories leave me wanting more. That hardly counts against the book–it simply means the cases are well-written and the writer achieves her aim of sparking interest. Some things people have tried really are pretty amazing…

From either a writer’s or reader’s perspective the approach of mixing a chronological narrative with cases provides an interesting tension.** Each case could deserve a book in their own right, but to give them much more space would distract from the running theme of the work, the story of the medical examiner’s office.

Radithor, radium offered as quack medicine. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)
Radithor, radium offered as quack medicine. (Source: Wikimedia Commons.)

Crime writing is a big market, woman’s writing in particular, and I feel this non-fiction work deserves attention by fans of that genre, if it hasn’t already. In a very real sense it goes back to the roots that their favourite genre is founded upon; most crime novels presume the current state of forensic science, this book looks at (part of) it’s origins told through the story of one office’s history and the cases it took on.

I think this book should appeal to both readers of popular science and to readers of ‘hard’ forensic crime fiction, or true crime non-fiction. (I’m no expert on crime fiction. I mean ‘hard’ it in the same sense as in ‘hard science fiction’: crime fiction based around the forensic science, rather than–say–mostly legal aspects, police procedural or over-blown drama.)

I’d give specific details, but my time is limited and The Poisoner’s Handbook has been widely reviewed. My aim here is to convey overall impressions and who the book might appeal to. Interested readers are strongly encouraged to read the interviews I’ve linked in the Footnotes.

If you’re struggling to find a gift for a fan of ‘hard’ forensic crime fiction, or true crime, that they haven’t yet read, The Poisoner’s Handbook should be a good option. (Sadly, you might struggle to find a copy in New Zealand as popular science stocks tend to be low – but thence my thinking that this needs to be seen outside of popular science, in the wider crime readers’ lot.)


I’d particularly like to thank David Kroll for the gift of my copy of the book.


As of 25th January, 2011, this book is available in paperback.

19th February: Now 34th on New York Times bestseller list. (26th Feb.: now at 28th on the list.)

20th February: Also nominated for an Agatha Award, best non-fiction section category.


This interview gives a glimpse of some of the broader aspects of her writing, ending with an excerpt from the book: the death of the (original) blue man. (A more recent reincarnation was nicknamed Papa Smurf. Ask me in the comments and I might find time to elaborate.)

Other interviews include this at the A.V. Club and a recent interview where Blum appears to have branched out on a seasonal note to the side effects of too much spice.

The author, Deborah Blum blogs at Public Library of Science at Speakeasy Science and is a regular contributor to the Women In Crime Ink blog. (I imagine any fans of crime writing will go and knock themselves out with all of what’s on offer on that blog.) She has authored several other popular science books, and was one of three editors of the second edition of A Field Guide for Science Writers (a copy of which I have on my shelves). Among seemingly far too many other things, she is also on the board of the World Federation of Science Journalists (of which New Zealand–my country–is not a member.)

* Not Maxwell Hutchkinson’s 1988 book with the same title.

** It strikes me as a clever, but tricky, way to structure the text. Reading interviews I get the impression that challenges like this appeal to the author.

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