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Running title: The Poisoner’s Handbook – Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York

Chemistry has always been my first love. Yeah, I know … how nerdy of me, but yes there it is. Some of my best memories, spent as a teen, was amidst pipettes, test tubes and Bunsen burners preparing for the General Certificate Examinations O Levels. I think also having a really awesome girlfriend (my true first love …awwww) as a lab partner sort of helped. And of course, having a mum who was a chemist may have factored into that whole equation and my fascination of the chemical world. Alas, I have detoured … and I haven’t even started the review. So on with it … shall we?

So there I was amongst the stacks at work, when this book literally screamed at me. Alright, alright that was a bit melodramatic … I actually caught glimpse of it whilst researching another book and … it … yes screamed at me. A bloodcurdling scream. And so I had no choice but to check it out. Unfortunately, my choice of reading may have raised a few eyebrows from some co-workers and I may have destroyed several dating prospects, whilst reading, on public transit (trust me, several arched eyebrows and judgemental stares from gorgeous women sitting opposite you says a lot). But that’s how the Evil Parrot rolls. Oh, the things I do for my reading public.

Poisoner’s Handbook (contrary to its name) is a chronicle of the work of Chief Medical Examiner Charles Norris and toxicologist Alexander Gettler that basically gave birth to forensic medicine in the 1920s. Yes, surprise, surprise, it is not a book teaching you how to poison people … though …
Though thoroughly enjoyed by chemistry buffs (such as yours truly), it is also a great compilation of crimes and incidents that involved … well … poisoning and some astounding bits of historical facts. Though very scientific in its writing, most non-scientifically inclined readers will still find it a delightful read since Blum doesn’t overwhelm on technicality and is a delightful storyteller. Some disturbing facts include people dying from alcohol poisoning during the Prohibition … even when they were WARNED of the dangers of imbibing treated wood or ethyl alcohol. Even more shocking was the government (i.e. the wonderful folks in Washington) putting forth decrees that required the poisoning of industrial alcohols as a DETERENT to those willing to break the law for a drink. Needless to say, many still kept dying. Ah Prohibition, a time where people were literally dying for a drink. Then there was the radium poisonings of the women that painted radium dials on watches, where the radium (a radioactive element that have a half life of 1600 years) not only penetrated their bones, but caused rapid decay of bones and whilst most people exhaled carbon dioxide, radium victims exhaled radon gas. Aye, makes secondhand smoke sound like aromatherapy. Beyond the alcohol and radium poisonings, there were also those criminal poisonings where, for the most, it was easy to poison someone (in the 1920s) and even when arrested most people walked before David Caruso could put on his dark glasses to the on oncoming strains of The Who’s Won’t Get Fooled Again. And boy, did people love their poisons back then. It is good to know that if my future wife serves food that tastes too metallic (arsenic) or desserts that have a hint of almonds (cyanide) even when there is NO almonds present that maybe I might need to reconsider my marital status. This is precisely why I do my own cooking. Yes, the Evil Parrot is full of surprises … and yet he is still single. Pray tell. Also note to self: I’ve got to stop watching too much bollocks on ID, BIO and Oxygen.
So whether you’re reading it for the science, the crime or even a bit of history … or all of the above, Poisoner’s Handbook turns out to be a majestic read. And who knows, some of this information just might save your life someday. Hey, I’m just saying, mates.

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