The Poisoner's Handbook by Deborah Blum
In The Poisoner's Handbook, Deborah Blum guides her readers through the seething underworld, as well as the blooming forensic science team, of 1920s New York City. Each chapter contains a set of murder cases related to deadly poisons such as the famous poison cyanide and obscure (but mortally effective) chemicals like ethyl and methyl alcohol. Without turning to dry description or overly academic language, Blum digs into the science behind each poison elaborates on how Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler, heads of the New York forensic science team (then called the toxicology unit), solved each case by creating tests for each poison completely from scratch. Deborah weaves in important bits of 1920s history, further bringing the book to life as she highlights connections between the toxicology department and big historical events like Prohibition.
Deborah Blum joins the ranks of captivating forensic science writers such as Mary Roach (Packing for Mars, Stiff, and other titles) in The Poisoner's Handbook. Her vivid language brings each poison to life as the chemical's role in 1920's life unfolds. I particularly enjoyed the chapter about Radium, a (you guessed it) radioactive element that constantly decays, emitting a dim but visible light. She delved into the lives of the Radium Girls, factory workers who painted clock dials with glowing radium and frequently pointed the tips of their brushes with their mouths. They ingested tiny amounts of radium every day they worked in the clock factory and often, they would be covered in radium dust that hung in the air of the workspace. Radium decays quickly and destabilizes materials surrounding it, and it wasn't long before the radium had worked itself into the employee's bones. Their teeth glowed and by the end, they were exhaling radon gas. Blum brings these girls to life, writing of their battle against the company they worked for who refused to admit that radium was, in fact, a poison. This is just one of the fascinating chapters in Blum's book.
For a relatively science-minded person like me, this book was a breath of fresh air compared with some of the drier types of academic nonfiction. However, anyone who can deal with morbidity and has an interest in poisons or the '20s would love this book! I also highly recommend it to kids who are looking for an interesting research topic for their chemistry classes. Blum truly brings justice to the fascinating era of the 1920s and the poisons that lay just underneath the surface.