Tuesday, October 05, 2010

For the Reference Shelf: Deborah Blum, THE POISONER'S HANDBOOK

I've been enjoying Deborah Blum's meticulous history — THE POISONER'S HANDBOOK: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. When I reached the final page, at the end of the author note, I realized that marriages are definitely affected by the presence of mystery books and their contents, whether fictional or not. Blum writes there:
There are mornings, lit by the cold winter light, when I start talking about a poison in my book, revealing my own dangerous expertise, and as I do, I watch my husband quietly, not really thinking about it, slide his cup out of my reach.
With a chuckle, I realized that my husband Dave would respond the same way if I were writing a book on poisons and delighting in my discoveries. As it is, we read a lot of the same books, and our explorations out on the road (this is a gorgeous season for Vermont road trips!) often include long discussions of twists and turns of plot and character. And we certainly share a speculative gaze at the gifted crime authors we meet along the way.

THE POISONER'S HANDBOOK isn't really a how-to volume; it's more of a long double biography of the two men who created modern forensics in New York City, Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler. From cyanide and mercury to the perils of alcohol substitutes during the period of Prohibition, the nasty substances that kill people need to be tracked and measured in order to make sure their users serve jail time. And, heaven help us, in order to deter others from the same methods!

Blum's book reflects, I think, her long-time career of writing newspaper science: Her paragraphs cluster in "stories" of a page and a half or two pages, linked one to the next, twining around a chapter topic. Eventually the cases involved snowball: An "angel of mercy" using chloroform to kill off terminally ill patients becomes part of the impetus for laboratories and for creation of a coroner's office that isn't subjected to political whims, for instance. Or Tony Marino and the Mike Malloy conspirators reveal how determined and inventive a set of killers can become.

The book makes great late-night reading because it's built in short segments and you can't get lost if interrupted. I did find it challenging to stick with it over longer periods of time because the segments jump around so often. But I got used to it, and enjoyed it. The gentle persistence with which Blum builds up the portraits of Norris and Gettler through their work is a delight to discover.

In the end, Blum reveals what her years of research led her to grasp:
I see poisoners -- so calculating, so cold-blooded -- as most like the villains of our horror stories. They're closer to that lurking monster in the closet than some drug-impaired crazy with a gun. I don't mean to dismiss the latter -- both can achieve the same awful results. But the scarier killer is the one who thoughtfully plans his murder ahead, tricks a friend, wife, love into swallowing something that will dissolve tissue, blister skin, twist the muscles with convulsions, knows all that will happen and does it anyway.
Keep that in mind as you open your next thriller.

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