Book review: 'The Poisoner's Handbook,' by Deborah Blum

By Art Taylor
Sunday, February 21, 2010


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

By Deborah Blum

Penguin Press. 319 pp. $25.95

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? Prior to Norris and Gettler's tenure, the City's coroner system was not just inefficient but blatantly corrupt, and Blum presents the two scientists both as high-minded crusaders -- within the department and without -- and as medical detectives, teaming with police to fight crime wherever it reared its ugly head. A child of wealth, educated at Yale and Columbia and in Europe, Norris fiercely promoted his science, fought budget battles with bureaucrats downtown and waged policy wars on a national level. The cigar-chomping Gettler, son of a Hungarian immigrant, manned the lab, working deep into the night to ferret out the truth inside the bodies that crossed his slab.

Fans of those TV forensic shows or of novels by Patricia Cornwell, Kathy Reichs or Jefferson Bass will find plenty to satisfy their appetites here. Blum understands and indulges our interest in serial killings, scandals and schemes gone wrong: A nursing home orderly chloroforms the costliest patients; a young heiress was perhaps murdered for money by her new husband; insurance scammers go one step too far, end up in the electric chair and eventually inspire two novels by James M. Cain, "The Postman Rings Twice" and "Double Indemnity." Perhaps the best case here involves a man caught throwing half of a woman's body into the East River, with the other half waiting back home on his kitchen floor. The police figured it was an open-and-shut case, until Norris arrived on the scene, made a cursory examination and announced, "Boys, you can't hold this man for murder."

Blum sets the scenes with a master's touch. In winter, the ivy creepers on Bellevue Hospital's walls "tangled like old bones," and inside the lab "the background music was the sizzle of gas burners, the snakelike hiss of distillation, and the bubbling of flasks over flames." Occasional passages might prove too clinical for some readers (I got lost in the array of alcohols used), but Blum proves poetic elsewhere. Blood poisoned by carbon monoxide, for instance, glows "like the crimson hourglass on the abdomen of a black widow spider."

Norris and Gettler campaigned against the dangers of cyanide as a popular fumigation chemical, and they fought leaded gasoline and corporate neglect, particularly in a case involving the Radium Girls, who died one by one after painting watch dials with a radioactive element to make them glow in the dark. The biggest story here concerns Norris and Gettler's long war against Prohibition as they watched the rise in deaths caused by drinking bootleg booze. Norris proclaimed publicly that "the United States Government must be charged with the moral responsibility for the deaths that poisoned liquor causes," and his statistics on those deaths made headlines in papers across the nation, intensifying the call for Prohibition's repeal. Meanwhile, Gettler's research into alcohol poisoning was indicative of his dedication: After studying more than 6,000 brains over five years, he and a colleague published a study creating the "first scientific scale of intoxication."

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 regularly reviews mysteries and thrillers for the Post and other publications. He is teaching a course in true crime literature at George Mason University.

© 2010 The Washington Post Company