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ambyr

ambyr

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Shirley Jackson, Laura Miller
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The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York - Deborah Blum Clear science writing combines with a broad exploration of the social milieu that gave rise to the developments described. Add in the tension of a dozen murder mysteries and you've got a fabulous book. I really think almost everyone I know would enjoy reading this, with the caveat that you have to have a strong stomach. No animals were harmed in the writing of this book, but scores died in the development of modern toxicology, and while Blum doesn't linger on their suffering she also doesn't gloss over it.

And then there's the people. Poison, Blum makes it clear, is often a nasty, slow, and brutal killer. And it's all around us. Even knowing how much we've improved at keeping hazardous products out of our groceries and convenience stores (and if you don't think we have, you don't know much about the history of the FDA), this book still made me want to flee civilization for the woods. Except, hey, an awful lot of those plants are poisonous, too . . .

My one caveat is that the book sometimes grows a little choppy, particularly when it comes to adding in description of wider world events like the Great War. There's an attempt to structure the book with one poison per chapter, but Blum occasionally abandons it, sometimes to include a follow-up to a previous story (the book is also chronological) and sometimes because an anecdote was clearly simply too cool not to include, even if it didn't fit anywhere in the narrative. Despite occasionally wishing for smoother transitions, I did feel it stood up as a book, and not merely a collection of essays.

Okay, I have one other caveat, but I suspect it's more on the publisher than on Blum: where are the pictures? Blum clearly has them; sometimes she spends paragraphs describing one, and some are posted on her blog. I would have loved to see the lab apparatus at work, to have marveled over the art deco architecture described in such loving detail, to have some notion of what the main characters looked like. The 20s had such a strong aesthetic, so why not show it to set the mood? Well, all right, because printing photos is expensive and tracking down and paying for permissions even more so. I've worked in publishing, I know the drill. I still think it would have been worth it.

Seriously, a wonderful book. Read it, especially if you enjoy modern CSI-type shows.