Thursday, January 04, 2018

Book-A-Day 2018 #4: The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah Blum

There are always people who would be happier if other people weren't around. And some subset of those unhappy people try to rectify the situation. Since the penalty for murder has been death, more or less and  most of the time, the smarter would-be murderers have always been looking for ways to kill undetectably, to mimic natural deaths.

As Deborah Blum puts it, "[u]ntil the early nineteenth century few tools existed to detect a toxic substance in a corpse." So the smart would-be murderer, for many centuries, turned to poison to achieve their ends. But, sadly for them, the march of science did keep moving forward, and eventually it was possible to detect a toxic substance. First one -- arsenic. And then more and more.

Of course, science was also creating new poisons as it went along -- some on purpose, as tools of war, and some by accident, with other useful properties for industry. And those two rising lines converged, in the early twentieth century, with the rise of forensic chemistry and toxicology as standard disciplines, and with the not-unrelated progressive push for safer working and living conditions.

Blum wants to tell that story -- how this and that poison could be detected, and what that meant -- but to make it specific. So, in The Poisoner's Handbook, she tells us about Charles Norris, the first Chief Medical Examiner of New York City, and his career from 1918 to its end in 1936. Norris was put in place by a crusading administration; the role of a CME was an attempt to professionalize what was previously done by often-incompetent coroners, whose primary qualification was their loyalty to the local political machine. As Blum tells it, Norris was the first big-city CME in the US, and hugely influential in the spread of that model, and of professionalizing that role.

Handbook has eleven long chapters, following a Prologue that brings us up to 1918, each one named with a particular poison and covering a span of a few years in Norris's career. I suspect that Norris and his staff did not actually pioneer every single breakthrough in forensic toxicology over those two decades, but Blum still has plenty of material to work with, from classic poisons like the cyanides and arsenic to Prohibition by-product deaths from various alcohols (wood, methyl, ethyl) to the wonders of chemistry like mercury and radium to natural gases fatal in concentrated form like carbon monoxide and dioxide. Each chapter tells the story of at least one major case, mostly murder with some industrial accidents, how Norris and his office were mixed up in that case and that poison, and moves the narrative forward another few years.

It's a pleasant structure, even if my ex-editor mind thinks it might be too much structure for a chronological, historical account -- I always tend to think my old friend Procrustes has stopped in for a bit of carpentry when things are that neat in a non-fiction book.

The Poisoner's Handbook thankfully will not teach you how to poison your enemies and rivals, but it will show you how others tried to do so in a time not all that long ago. It may also remind you how deeply stupid Prohibition was, and how corrupt government was before the reforms of the early 20th century -- both things worth keeping in mind, now that we have major political movements determined to go so far backwards on so many things.

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