The Criminalist: Birthing the Crime Lab

My newest column for the Barnes & Noble Review __once more travels the non-fiction route, considering Deborah Blum’s artfully written synthesis of the dawn of the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office, the proliferation of all kinds of poison, and the excess of the 1920s giving way to the ‘30s Depression. Sounds like a mouthful? Certainly, but THE POISONER’S HANDBOOK is absolutely, totally worth it and many mouthfuls more. Here’s how my piece opens:

****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….

Read on for the rest.