Deborah Blum’s “The Poisoner’s Handbook”

The Washington Post published today my review of Deborah Blum’s terrific new history, The Poisoner’s Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. This is a real treasure of the book, at once a detailed scientific study, a wonderful evocation of a bygone era, and a gripping murder mystery — or rather a series of murder mysteries, confounding investigators case by case and then solved with methodical precision. (Or mostly solved, I should say; even the best detectives slip up now and again, and the big slip-up here is a costly one.) Here’s the way the review begins:

Police and prosecutors today increasingly bemoan a major courtroom adversary: the so-called CSI effect, named after the immensely popular CBS franchise. The show’s popularity has ratcheted up expectations about DNA testing and other forensic evidence to the point that jurors are reluctant to deliver guilty verdicts without it. “Grissom would’ve tried gas chromatography,” one can imagine a jury foreman concluding grimly. “Without that, we simply can’t convict.”

Such wasn’t the case nearly a century ago, as Pulitzer Prize-winning science writer Deborah Blum reveals in her immensely entertaining study of New York City’s first chief medical examiner, Charles Norris, and his toxicologist, Alexander Gettler. After their extensive scientific evidence failed to bring a conviction in a 1922 cyanide case, Norris and Gettler were told that “toxicology was such a new science, it was awfully hard to educate and convince a jury simultaneously.” But by early 1936, defense attorneys were arguing just the opposite: “that the city lab’s reputation was too strong, and that Gettler was so well respected that jurors tended to accept whatever he said.”

So what prompted the shift?

To answer that question, check out the rest of the review — or better yet, pick up the book itself, a true page-turner.

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