'The Poisoner's Handbook' by Deborah Blum

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THE POISONER'S HANDBOOK: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, by Deborah Blum. Penguin Press, 336 pp., $25.95.

Think we live in a dangerous age? Consider the case of the arsenic poisoner who struck at a lower Manhattan restaurant during the Roaring '20s, causing a baffling tragedy recounted in "The Poisoner's Handbook."

On a warm summer day in 1922, shortly after lunch hour, some 60 people took violently ill. As recounted in this riveting history, the victims had all made the same fatal dessert choice: blackberry and huckleberry pie from a neighborhood restaurant and bakery.

Panic spread, and ambulances wailed through the streets, as local office workers were stricken. Six people died.

Hot on the trail of the murderer was a crack team of experts in the developing field of forensic medicine. Led by a fearless New York City medical examiner named Charles Norris, the chemists found that the pie crust dough had been laced with arsenic. The poisoner was never found.

As Blum explains, "Knowing the poison is never the same as knowing the killer."

There are few neat endings in this chilling series of detective stories laden with the science behind poisoners and their art. In its infancy, forensic medicine was sometimes dismissed by jurors in New York courtrooms, and the cleverest poisoners were often set free.

The heroes are crusading chemists attempting to prevent scoundrels from poisoning with impunity. Norris was a reformer appointed to replace the old coroner system, which had for the most part utilized untrained, sometimes tipsy, Tammany Hall hacks. Norris was assisted by toxicologist Alexander Gettler, a workaholic with a similar dedication to his field. Norris, Gettler and others rushed to crime scenes, sometimes performing autopsies on site. They then hurried back to their Bellevue Hospital lab to trace fatal doses of arsenic, bichloride of mercury and cyanide, in organs such as the victims' livers and digestive tracts.

A prototype of the modern CSI team (minus the dark shades and cop repartee), they often used equipment bought with their own salaries when denied funding by a stingy Tammany Hall.

Their work was certainly cut out for them. As Blum tells it, poison seemed to lurk everywhere in 1920s New York: in household products, in the wood alcohol served in Prohibition-era speak-easies, in autos spewing carbon monoxide. (Chapters are titled with chemical symbols, so you can always name your poison.) There were also the suicides and accidental deaths by poison. For instance, on a drunken cruise to Paris, silent screen star Olive Thomas realized too late that she had mistaken her husband's bichloride of mercury syphilis medication for a sleeping potion. She died several days later.

Blum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer who teaches science journalism at the University of Wisconsin, lays out an occasionally convoluted story with precision and suspense. "The Poisoner's Handbook" is as hard to walk away from as a "CSI" marathon.

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