I’m not a hard sell when it comes to non-fiction. I like some intrigue mixed-in sure, but I’m no genre purist. If the biography is enigmatic enough, I’m sold. Likewise, although I once found myself literally begging for a C to pass high school chemistry, I’m willing to try a science book if the topic strikes. Lord knows Mary Roach has thrown the doors wide-open on that front. With this in mind, I approached The Poisoner’s Handbook with cautious excitement. A book about murder in the roaring 20’s certainly sounds awesome, but would I get lost in the minutiae of the science?
My answer: a bit.
Each chapter of Deborah Blum’s book is themed for a different poison, but even this is somewhat convoluted. While most chapters deal primarily in their theme, the narrative of one Dr. Charles Norris and his toxicologist, Alexander Gettler, spill across the pages in a rather unconfined way. What I mean by all this is that while Blum tries simultaneously to tell the chronological account of how forensic medicine was born (read: Norris) and the various roles and availabilities of poisons during that timeframe, there’s a lot of details floating around, and it’s not hard to feel muddled and obligated to reread.
There are some great moments in Poisoner’s Handbook, like learning all about Radithor, a Red Bull/magic tonic of the 1920’s that’s main ingredient was, you guessed it, radium. People straight guzzled this stuff. There is something altogether haunting in reading about how oblivious people were to the dangerous substances around them. You can’t help but wonder what people 80 years from now will think about how we were dumb enough to hold cell phones to our heads and drink coffees the size of small lakes. [Full disclosure: I do both of those things all the time].
Blum is a talented writer, and she does herself a great service by letting the story tell itself without too much subjective input. The only real shortcomings of the book lie in attempting to successfully navigate the lay person through a rather diverse landscape of elements, toxins and other deadly compounds. This is pretty hard to do, and at times I got lost. Like any good idiot, I was in this for the sensationalism aspect, and while that part paid off, I feel obligated to note Blum’s success as a story teller is greater than her skills as a teacher. Either way, I’m still scared to drink Odwalla.