Part chemistry, part history, part true crime THE POISONER’S HANDBOOK by Pulitzer Prize winner Deborah Blum tells the story of the handful of scientists who elevated forensic analysis to a respected profession through their work in New York throughout the 1920’s and 30’s.

Although it is a book about the past, much of it resonates with contemporary issues.  In reading about the years of prohibition, it was easy to see why the “noble experiment” failed since it expanded criminal enterprise, increased alcoholism and caused far more deaths by alcohol poisoning than ever before.  It’s easy to draw parallels to the failure of our on-going War on Drugs.

The willingness of manufacturers, in those bygone decades, to allow numerous poisons to permeate consumer products for the sake of profit, reminds me a lot of the corporate greed seen recently on Wall Street as well as the indifference toward the health of Americans demonstrated by insurance corporations and others who make money off of the existing inequity in health care.


The scientists learning how to trace chloroform in the human body makes me think about the role that poison may have played in the murder of Caylee Anthony.
I found more incidents in the historical events that echo in today’s world and you’ll probably find some I’ve missed.  But what made this read most enjoyable was the personal writing style of Deborah Blum.  Reading THE POISONER’S HANDBOOK made me feel as if i was listening to a story from a trusted friend whose insight and thought provoking ideas I value and appreciate.

The one passage I liked best came at the very end of her Author’s Notes.  It made me laugh out loud because it was a scene that could have taken place in my kitchen:

“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.”

It’s a fabulous book.