Tuesday, September 07, 2010

[Books] Book Look: The Poisoner's Handbook, by Deborah Blum

Book Look: The Poisoner's Handbook, by Deborah Blum:. Was there ever a time and place when folks understood less about human nature than the 1920s and 30s in the U.S.? It seems like the concept that people respond to incentives was completely foreign to them. The depression was made Great by people with no clue about public reaction to basic economic incentives. And before that there was prohibition -- an idiotic idea made worse by the fact that, in an effort to discourage folks from distilling their own hooch from pilfered industrial alcohol, it was order by the government that all industrial alcohol be poisoned. Yeah, that'll teach them. (Of course, when you consider drug laws, zero tolerance in schools, and government bailouts, we may give them a run for their money in misunderstanding human nature.)

That's just one of the interesting facts I picked up from reading The Poisoner's Handbook, which is a somewhat uncomfortable combination of history, biography, true crime, and science. Using prohibition as a jumping off point, Blum tracks the birth and legal validation of the science of forensic medicine. This involves profiles of its founding father Charles Norris (yes, Chuck Norris, I know...) who expended a herculean effort to fight the corrupt New York City establishment which, for the sake of political favoritism and control, had installed a health official who would famously show up drunk in court. Also, profiled extensively is Alexander Gettler, Norris' chief toxicologist and legendary for his dogged devotion to thoroughness and the scientific method.

We are also treated to some true crime in the form of famous poisoning cases, some for fun, some for money, some for "love". Another interesting truth: Poisonous substances were readily available back then and the only way a number of these murders were solved was through flaky or betrayed associates or because the murderers were just plain stupid. (This may still be true today; most cases are solved via snitches or obvious evidence, aren't they?)

Even with documented proof, legalities got in the way of obvious convictions. (We can relate.)

Scandalous cases, especially if committed for lurid purposes, were tabloid sensations. (Oh yeah, we can relate.)

Some poisons were considered elixirs of health. Radium, for example, was thought to provide energy and was used as a depilatory before people's bones started disintegrating. (You gotta admit this is better today. A lot of the homes I've been looking at have radon detectors. And you won't get intentionally dosed with the stuff except as a last resort against cancer. Most new product scares we have turn out to be the sky falling, and arguably, products are held back from market longer than they should be.)

And it was lucky Chuck Charles Norris was independently wealthy because he often financed a big chunk of the forensic laboratories expenses out of his own pocket, since New York City went through periodic spells of near bankruptcy. (Has happened since and will no doubt come again.)

So here's the main lesson learned: Some things never change.

What about the book, as such? Verdict: So-so. It misses by darting around too much (history/chemistry/biography/true crime) and compromises badly on the discussion of scientific techniques: too shallow to be intellectually interesting, yet really has no place as part of a casual narrative. Blum may have been better served to have just flat left them out. In all cases it would have been better to pick a single angle (history, chemistry, etc....) and pursue it more deeply. A side result of this veneer view is a tendency to paint conflicts in a nice conventional-wisdom black and white, then move along to something else.

That said, should you read The Poisoner's Handbook? Probably yes. It does achieve validity in numerous genres and so will work for whichever one you happen to have a jones for. That suggests shrewd marketing as far as selecting the content -- I mean that in a positive way. If it sounds like something you'd like, it almost certainly is. I also suspect Blum (who is clearly passionate about forensic medicine) could construct a more deep and fascinating look at some specific aspect of this book. I hope a publisher let's her write it.