Deborah Blum was getting a gleam in her eye when she talked about poison. She noted that arsenic is legally in some poultry eaten by US residents. So you could see the question coming.
“Is this (“The Poisoner’s Handbook”) a “how-to” book?” a questioner asked author Blum recently (3/31/2010) in an Atlanta book reading for Blum’s newest work. A University of Wisconsin professor and Pulitzer Prize-winning reporter in California, Blum smiled and said the book was about poison, not murder. If you wanted material to poison someone, “it’s under your sink,” Blum answered.
Blum’s description of the shoddy methods that unqualified coroners appointed by patronage used in jazz-age New York, though, are startling and show fascination and an incredible amount of research. (Disclosure: the author and I were UGA classmates; I paid for my copy of the book, though I have not completed it yet.). It’s her fifth book, all non-fiction and all revolving around her background in science-based journalism.
This is a natural outgrowth for someone who won journalism’s top honor in 1992 for a series called “The Monkey Wars.” The stories for the Sacramento Bee examined ethical issues of primate research. Of course, this will not earn tabloid headlines or be seen on morning news shows, but it involves tax money and how public research is conducted. Research, of course, is tomorrow’s reality. Those of you with GPS devices in your cars can thank the U.S. military.
There’s no macabre streak hiding inside the author, either. She’s a mother of two and married to a man with California roots who returns to his family’s farm on a regular basis. It’s hereditary; her father was a college professor with a science background.
Still, it was remarkable to watch her involve her Atlanta book audience in mock crime-solving. She described a crime scene and asked the audience to pick out the characteristic of the dead person that would exonerate a suspect on a murder charge. I don’t want to ruin your next meal, but someone who dies of carbon-monoxide poisoning would be flush pink if all the blood were drained from the body.
“This is not a risk-free world,” she said, noting that Earth itself creates as many poisonous substances as people do. So if you’re into “Law And Order” or “CSI,” you likely would like Blum’s new book. Big difference: it’s non-fiction. The truth, of course, hurts.