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Deborah Blum

Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

A-PoisonersHandbookDeborah Blum won the Pulitzer Prize in 1992 for a series of articles for the Sacramento Bee on animal experimentation. Now a professor of journalism at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, she has written several other books on the history of science, including Ghost Hunters: William James and the Search for Scientific Proof of Life After Death, 3.5 of 5 Stars Nov/Dec 2006.

The Topic: Today a DNA test or toxicology report might seem like the most reliable piece of evidence in a trial. But in Prohibition-era New York, many people rightly regarded the coroner's office as corrupt and doubted that the new science of toxicology produced reliable results. Blum tells the story of two men who reversed that perception: Charles Norris, who reformed the New York medical examiner's office, and Alexander Gettler, a pioneer of lab toxicology. Plenty of poisoners and other evildoers make appearances as well. Yet perhaps the real stars of Blum's stories are the toxins themselves, whose effects on the human body she explains in morbidly loving detail.
Penguin. 319 pages. $25.95. ISBN: 9781594202438

Boston Globe 4 of 5 Stars
"Blum's book is heavy on science, especially chemistry, but it's also an excellent look at the lackluster state of public health in the Jazz Age. She rightfully celebrates Norris and Gettler as brilliant advocates for reform." Chuck Leddy

Dallas Morning News 4 of 5 Stars
"In this bubbling beaker of a book, [Blum] mixes up a heady potion of forensic toxicology, history and true crime. Her account of the ongoing battle between scientists and killers in Jazz Age New York is more startling than any CSI: NY script." Jane Sumner

Milwaukee Jrnl Sentinel 4 of 5 Stars
"Blum, who once wanted to be a chemist, blends hard science with narrative judiciously in this book. ... The Poisoner's Handbook succeeds as science, as history, as entertainment and as an argument for the power and purpose of popular science writing." Jim Higgins

Washington Post 4 of 5 Stars
"Blum illuminates these tales of Norris and Gettler and their era with a dedication and exuberance that reflect the men themselves. Not only is The Poisoner's Handbook as thrilling as any CSI episode, but it also offers something even better: an education in how forensics really works." Art Taylor

Chicago Sun-Times 3.5 of 5 Stars
"Deborah Blum has not lost the skills of good storytelling she honed as a Pulitzer Prize–winning journalist." Roger K. Miller

NY Times Book Review 3 of 5 Stars
"Crime-solving tales and skillfully constructed scenes rife with memorable anecdotes hold the reader's attention, but the detailed chemical explanations and meticulous accounts of lab procedures that fill each chapter make for a routine and predictable structure. For all Blum's material has going for it, the book leaves one yearning for deeper insights into Norris's and Gettler's motivations and a more forceful conclusion." Elyssa East

Critical Summary

Deborah Blum's book contains plenty of crime-drama stories for readers who are fans of CSI, and the several critics who structured their reviews around this comparison heartily recommended the book. Those who evaluated the book as a work of history or popular science were also generally pleased; with her extensive experience as a science writer, Blum knows how to humanize molecules and atoms. What some reviewers asked, though, was whether Blum's decision to structure the book's chapters around the Jazz Age toxins of choice made it more difficult to focus on her human characters and their motivations. That weakness doesn't overshadow the overall high quality here.