Like every truly great story, this one has a bit of a back-story. A few months ago I read an interview with Deborah Blum, author of The Poisoner’s Handbook : Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. This was no standard author interview. Blum, who was awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1992, teaches science journalism at the University of Wisconsin and knows a thing or two about poisons. She made good use of her expertise and peppered the interview with a list of her favorite poisons, along with a reason why each was so fascinating to her.
After being captivated by not only the content but the style of this interview, I immediately checked the book out and started reading that very evening.
Blum details the selfless work of forensic science pioneers Charles Norris (not to be confused with Chuck Norris) and Alexander Gettler of the New York City Medical Examiner’s Office. Gettler was a dedicated scientist, often working above and beyond, especially during the surge of poisoning deaths during Prohibition. Norris used every ounce of what influence he had to fight for his office during the Depression, often using his own resources to fund the department.
I was hoping for an engrossing look at some of the hottest cases in New York City during the 1920s and 1930s and I wasn’t disappointed. What could have been a dry retelling of the chemical facts surrounding each accidental death or murder turned out to be a thrilling ride. I discovered how justice was served and how safety laws changed, but I also learned how each case helped those dedicated scientists develop tests that could find such poisonous elements as arsenic, ethyl alcohol and radium.
Unfortunately, to my great lament, I discovered weeks after finishing the book that Blum had gotten some of her chemical processes wrong. I was heartbroken!
My solution? I checked out The Elements : a Visual Exploration of Every Known Atom in the Universe by Theodore Gray. The book begins with an overview of the periodic table and easily explains the similar properties of those elements grouped together in the table. There’s even a little bit of background on the table itself, beginning with this quote:
Hang on tight, we’re going to explain quantum mechanics in one page. (If you find this section too technical, feel free to skim it–there isn’t going to be a quiz at the end.)
I had planned to skim but it was so well written that I came back for more. First I looked up the chemicals from The Poisoner’s Handbook. I learned of a few distinctions that were either left out of the original story or chemical processes that were explained slightly out-of-order. I was hooked. There are so many amazing photographic images by Theodore Gray and Nick Mann in The Elements that I couldn’t help reading about a few more elements every night.
I decided not to let a small handful of factual errors prevent me from recommending The Poisoner’s Handbook to you. In fact, I found an equally great book and author in doing my own research after one story ended. Reading is a journey, and so often one book will happily lead to another.
Did you ever enjoy a book but later find out it had some major factual flaws? Would you read that book again or recommend it to others?