Shortcut #51: The Poisoner’s Handbook

I’ve never considered suicide by poison.

In all my reading, in all the movies and television shows I’ve seen, poison is presented as a horrible, horrible way to die.  Better than a bullet to the gut, but not perhaps by much.

Reading The Poisoner’s Handbook has convinced me that there are infinitely better ways to die (assuming you can say that there is a better way to die, dying being the end and all (and I suppose I just did)).

In short: Mercury poisoning?  Not the way to go.  So says

Shortcut #51: Deborah Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook

The Poisoner's Handbook

I’m a sucker for well-written non-fiction.  Hell, I’m a sucker for dry-as-the-Sahara non-fiction if the subject is interesting.  Even though my wading through the book may be slow, the facts sifted from the books are worth the investment.

For examples, the following.  Typhoid Mary was actually a real woman.  Most liquor served during Prohibition was made from wood alcohol which is a poison, and many people died or went blind drinking speakeasy cocktails.  Prohibition was instrumental in turning organized crime away from violence to vice.

That last is indicative of what I found most interesting about The Poisoner’s Handbook.  All the details that Blum presents are hopelessly interconnected, and their connections paint a picture of a living culture, one where each element is inextricable from the next.  Prohibition changed the nature of organized crime and glamorized drinking through painting it as dangerous, risky, the pastime of artists, celebrities, and socialites.  Because Prohibition liquor was made with wood alcohol – industrial alcohol that, in addition to being poisonous, tasted horrible – drinks were mixed with fruit juices, soda water, and other liquids in order to make them palatable.

In this small way, Blum’s showed me one way of creating a realistic and believable world in my own writing.  One event such as Prohibition spawns a host of consequences, and those consequences spawn others, and that web of relationships is what makes a society a living organism rather than a painted backdrop.

This is what I hunger for in non-fiction: A different, deeper understanding of the world.

That, and inspiration for poems.  In this case, the story of Mike Malloy, the target of a murder plot who “withstood ethyl alcohol, methyl alcohol, rotten fish, fermented oysters, broken glass, metal slivers, an ice-water soaking, and an automobile ambush.” (Which is a nice way to say they ran him over with a car.) Reading that reminded me again of Kitty Genovese, and both will be subjects of poems that will be companion pieces for “Phineas Gage.”

There was a point that I was annoyed with Blum’s writing, but that was mostly due to the form.  Each chapter is named for a particular poison that is the focus of that chapter, though the narrative of the book as a whole follows Charles Norris and Alexander Gettler, two men who were the pioneers of forensic chemistry in America, and instrumental in making scientific evidence acceptable and respected as evidence in court.  This dividing of the book works really well, allowing Blum to both concentrate on specific poisons in digestible chunks, and in providing an engine for the plot to move forward.

Why was I annoyed, then?  Probably because her method – the overtly formal nature of the form – was very similar to something I might use to organize a book.  And so, instinctively, I distrusted it.  Probably because I was jealous.

But Blum’s The Poisoner’s Handbook is a wonderful book, and is poison to my pocketbook.  I’m going to be picking up Blum’s two other books as soon as I can get myself to a bookstore.  I suggest you do the same.

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4 Responses to Shortcut #51: The Poisoner’s Handbook

  1. Jaimie says:

    Wow, creative people live in Houston? (From a lifelong Houstonian.)

    I’ve always wanted to read this book, but I haven’t had a need really. I’ve recommended it to mystery writers, though. I don’t write mystery.

  2. Andrew says:

    Technically, I don’t write mystery either. But I find that information in non-fiction books always finds its way into what I write, whether poetry or fiction. And if I’m writing a YA fantasy or science fiction novel, poison and its brethren might certainly come into play.

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