31 March 2010

The Poisoner's Handbook

No, not that type of poisoner's handbook; think "true crime".

The Mystery Book Club that meets at my store picked The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah Blum as one of their next reads (I think April, maybe May).  So I was like, "Hmmmm, a history of forensic medicine, specific to poisons and chemistry, in Jazz Age/Prohibition New York....I'll read that!"

From a true crime/history of forensic medicine standpoint The Poisoner's Handbook is interesting and fun to read.  Blum focuses on a major poisoning case in each chapter, be the agent methanol, arsenic, thallium, carbon monoxide, cyanide, or radium.  Medical examiner practices we take for granted today (timely autopsies, accurate death certificates, etc) were implemented to lend the profession credibility; corrupt and ill-trained coroner systems as well as the political machine that was New York City politics had to be dealt with.  It's all very fascinating and readable.

But then there are some things that bug me about this book.  There are no graphs or pictures in this book - not even a Periodic Table.  A picture is worth a thousand words when you're explaining why radium is taken up by the body in the same manner as calcium (they're in the same group so they have the same basic chemistry) but radium causes major problems because of its reactivity and radiation (it's easier to explain radioactive decay of alpha, beta, and gamma particles if you've got a picture).  Similarly, I can line up the molecular models of methanol and ethanol in my head along with their acid and aldehyde by-products and understand how those chemicals act in the liver but I'm thinking the average Joe with a high school chemistry background (at most) won't be able to do that.  I've had six semesters of chemistry, up to advanced organic, and I have a degree in biology, so I understand all the physiologic processes described in the book but a non-science-background reader might need a boost.  So, diagrams would be nice and maybe also the photographs of the scientists and other historical players described in the text.  Also, some of the text descriptions of what happens chemically are kind of vague ("titration" is not really described as titration but as a progression of colors when you add acid to a solution); vagueness makes my little chemist's heart sink (I am a member of Alpha Chi Sigma Professional Chemistry Fraternity - so is Bassam Shakhashiri who is thanked in the acknowledgements). 

I also found the chapter layouts a little weird.  Each chapter revolves around a specific poison, which is nice, but the middle of each chapter gets into the general history of the crime lab for that time period before returning to the case involving the specific poison.  It gets a little confusing to read about cyanide poisoning then about all the methanol deaths during Prohibition (and the enforcement laws about denaturing industrial ethanol) before returning to a case of death by cyanide.  It would have been a little more clear to have separate chapters for the poisoning cases/poisons between chapters about the general history of the department. 

If you love true crime or history of criminology, definitely read The Poisoner's Handbook.   If you see this on the shelf with the rest of the chemistry books in the "Science" section of the bookstore be forewarned that it might not have as much chemistry as you would like but it's still fun to read if you're looking for something light.

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