The Poisoner’s Handbook

Murder provides the crux for a good many of the stories which fascinate us, whether the tale comes from the tabloids or a novelist’s imagination. But the act itself often eludes narrative. A cloud of rage, a moment of opportunity, and a weapon in hand leads to death in minutes, even seconds, barely enough time to register that the victim has moved out of the land of the living. Add a dash of poison, however, rationed out in small doses over a long period of time, and murder leaves the realm of second-degree impulse for first-degree pre-meditation. Randomize the efforts and, in recent cases like the 1982 Tylenol murders and the 2001 anthrax attacks, the result is domestic terror, the lack of resolution lingering in the air like the bitter almond smell of cyanide.

Contemporary crime fiction’s emphasis on verisimilitude and character favors more easily discernible death mechanisms like gunshots, stab wounds and ligatures, in large part because there are more such murders in real life. But the genre’s Golden Age, from the turn of the 20th Century to World War II, ran amok with poisoners, whose crimes could be couched as debilitating sickness or the natural run of aging. Once unmasked by the likes of Agatha Christie — who knew a thing or two about insidious chemicals thanks to an earlier job dispensing pharmaceuticals — the handiwork of these villains were a testament to elegantly complex plotting and fiendish misdirection of the reader.

These parlor tricks of fiction also reflected what Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist Deborah Blum describes, in her new book The Poisoner’s Handbook as “a deadly cat and mouse game, [with] scientists and poisoners as intellectual adversaries.” Although poison is as old as human culture (think of the death of Socrates) its operation couldn’t be understood until the advent of modern chemistry. By the early 1800s it was possible to detect the presence of poison, and by the early 20th Century European toxicologists were staying in step with drug-happy murderers who thought they could get away with their crimes, only to be foiled by post-mortem chemical tests.

In America, these advances ran into somewhat greater obstacles. Forensic science practices were nowhere close to their counterparts across the Atlantic — American states and towns were riddled with incompetent coroners, underfunded laboratories and indifferent politicians who could not keep pace with the “wealth of modern poisons” created by the innovations of industry. The clever poisoner, however, was about to meet his match in the two heroes of Blum’s fascinating account of the dawn of modern American forensic toxicology; The Poisoner’s Handbook offers a synthesis of societal forces and chemical advances with barely detectable seams.

On January 31, 1918, years after a scathing report indicted New York City’s coroners for falling down on the job and despite endless delays by Tammany Hall-controlled state legislature, Charles Norris, Bellevue Hospital’s chief pathologist, was appointed the city’s first Chief Medical Examiner. The appointment was a watershed:

It would be imprecise to say that [Norris] loved the job…he lived and breathed it. He spent his own money on it. He gave it power and prominence and wore himself into exhaustion and illness over it. Under [his] direction, the New York City medical examiner’s office would become a department that set forensic standards for the rest of the country.

Norris courted the public, which latched on to his “buoyant laugh and quick wit,” and had a keen sense of the absurd (“We call this the Country Club,” he would tell visitors) but never forgot his objective to overcome, as he described in an essay, “a system which fosters ignorance, prejudice and graft.”

His partner in pathological crime, at least on the toxicology front, was Alexander Gettler. Unlike his boss, he didn’t care for the media (reporters would grow frustrated at Gettler’s tight-lipped answers, one memorably setting him down as “a personality as colorless as the sodium chloride that he works with” but shared a passion for medical research, extremely long hours and, most importantly, for devising new ways to catch previously undetectable culprits. Gettler, in essence, would have to invent the wheel, since New York’s toxicology lab was America’s first: “If a test didn’t exist, he would invent it. If research methods didn’t exist, he would develop them himself. If a new poison or drug came on the market, he went off to a butcher shop…and bought three pounds of liver.”

Compared to modern machines that detect traces of substances down to parts per billion, Gettler’s resources and methods come across as shockingly brute and quaint. But fields must begin somewhere, and Gettler’s determination to beat poisoners at their own game forms the emotional core of The Poisoner’s Handbook, which is otherwise a marvel of structural and narrative trickery. Each chapter is named for a particular chemical substance with the power to kill, the order carefully chosen to reflect the many balls Blum must juggle throughout: chloroform (CHCl3) and its oh-so-sweet smell kicks things off because it was used by a serial murderer unknown to the collapsing coroner system, while the two chapters bearing the same chemical formula of CH3OH comment on the inexorable but separate rise of cheap, deadly wood alcohol and its twin, synthetic methyl alcohol — both boosted first by the onset of Prohibition, the set of booze-banning laws that helped define the Jazz Age’s penchant for excess, and second by and the national despair brought on by the Great Depression. Not all poisons are elegant, and Blum’s necessary emphasis on alcohol poisoning (which zoomed up 600% between 1920 and 1930) acts as a subtle reminder that Wars on Substances of any stripe prove to be more costly, inefficient, and damaging than the drug itself.

Other poisons get their moment as the m.o. of cases famous or forgotten. Cyanide’s “murderously precise” action, binding tightly to haemoglobin molecules at the expense of oxygen, spurred Gettler and his liver meat-grinding to prove that an older couple’s death in Brooklyn’s Hotel Margaret was an accident, not murder. The “chemical thug” carbon monoxide’s rise to prominence owed its thanks to the parallel rise in automobile usage, and its detection both fingered murderers and saved innocent men from execution. And the detection of arsenic reverses the fortunes of a poisoned-minded woman named Mary Frances Creighton, who twelve years earlier was acquitted when Gettler’s painstaking techniques were mocked in court. It was, for Gettler and Norris, a triumph that “had, indeed, changed the poison game” and commanded respect for forensic toxicology.

Blum’s extraordinary narrative alchemy fuses Gettler and Norris’s painstaking, laborious undertakings with the birth of safety measures (the Food and Drug Administration wasn’t much of one until the 1930s), the scandal surrounding workers’ exposure to radium, and many other measures that bring home how volatile the transformation from prosperity to struggle really was. A few things get lost, like what debt both Norris and Gettler owed to colleagues in other cities and countries (Blum, to her credit, makes a note of this in supplementary material) or what clashes they had with law enforcement (though the ones with government are well-documented.) But these flaws don’t diminish The Poisoner’s Handbook‘s glorious depictions of the “coming-of-age party for forensic toxicology.” The book is an unexpected yet appropriate open-sesame into a world that was planting seeds for the world — with lethal toxins and cutting-edge tools — that would later, darkly bloom.