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Short Synopsis
Pulitzer Prize–winning science writer Deborah Blum follows New York City's first forensic scientists to discover a fascinating Jazz Age story of chemistry and detection, poison and murder.

Full Synopsis
Deborah Blum, writing with the high style and skill for suspense that is characteristic of the very best mystery fiction, shares the untold story of how poison rocked Jazz Age New York City. In The Poisoner's Handbook, Blum draws from highly original research to track the fascinating, perilous days when a pair of forensic scientists began their trailblazing chemical detective work, fighting to end an era when untraceable poisons offered an easy path to the perfect crime.

Drama unfolds case by case as the heroes of The Poisoner's Handbook—chief medical examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler—investigate a family mysteriously stricken bald, Barnum and Bailey's Famous Blue Man, factory workers with crumbling bones, a diner serving poisoned pies, and many others. Each case presents a deadly new puzzle, and Norris and Gettler work with a creativity that rivals that of the most imaginative murderer, creating revolutionary experiments to tease out even the wiliest compounds from human tissue. Yet in the tricky game of toxins, even science can't always be trusted, as proven when one of Gettler's experiments erroneously sets free a suburban housewife later nicknamed "America's Lucretia Borgia" to continue her nefarious work.

From the vantage of Norris and Gettler's laboratory in the infamous Bellevue Hospital it becomes clear that killers aren't the only toxic threat to New Yorkers. Modern life has created a kind of poison playground, and danger lurks around every corner. Automobiles choke the city streets with carbon monoxide, while potent compounds such as morphine can be found on store shelves in products ranging from pesticides to cosmetics. Prohibition incites a chemist's war between bootleggers and government chemists, while in Gotham's crowded speakeasies each round of cocktails becomes a game of Russian roulette. Norris and Gettler triumph over seemingly unbeatable odds to become the pioneers of forensic chemistry and the gatekeepers of justice during a remarkably deadly time. A beguiling concoction that is equal parts true crime, twentieth-century history, and science thriller, The Poisoner's Handbook is a compelling account of a forgotten New York.

"With the pacing and rich characterization of a first-rate suspense novelist, Blum makes science accessible and fascinating." ---Publishers Weekly Starred Review

"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." ---The Washington Post

"Her story [is] engagingly written and extensively researched." ---Chicago Sun-Times

"Blum effectively balances the fast-moving detective story with a clear view of the scientific advances that her protagonists brought to the field. Caviar for true-crime fans and science buffs alike." ---Kirkus

"Blum interlaces true-crime stories with the history of forensic medicine and the chemistry of various poisons…. [A] readable and enjoyable book.... Highly recommended." ---Library Journal

"In this bubbling beaker of a book, [Blum] mixes up a heady potion of forensic toxicology, history and true crime." ---The Dallas Morning News

"[A]n inventive history that, like arsenic mixed into blackberry pie, goes down with ease." ---The New York Times

"Marlo's voice is smoky and tinged with humor, irony, and light mocking as she revisits the rudimentary methods of the murder and equally rudimentary science of the Jazz Age." ---Publishers Weekly Starred Audio Review

"Blum's spirited prose and well-researched science and Marlo's intelligent performance make this nonfiction production seem like a series of powerful short stories." ---AudioFile
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The Poisoner's Handbook

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

Author Deborah Blum

Narrated by Coleen Marlo

Publication date Mar 3, 2010

Running time 10 hrs

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