Real Forensic Science Revealed

Many of you are hooked on the TV series, CSI, and other forensic-based TV forensic scienceshows.  For you, I have a great book recommendation.  The Poisoner’s Handbook, by Deborah Blum.  She shows how the real forensic science is revealed.

Blum goes through a variety of poisons: strychnine, mercury, arsenic, and even “bootleg gin,” and explains in great detail how they poison the body.  Her technical knowledge and sense of humor keep this aspect moving as some of the chemistry information could bog down.

To avoid reading like a college textbook, the author traces the struggle between brilliant criminals and how they murder using poison and the development of modern medical examiners.  The criminals stay one step ahead of the authorities by using new poisons that can’t be detected.  The medical examiners fight back in their labs to develop tests that are accurate and will stand up in court.  The real forensic science is revealed in this struggle that has been going on for years.

Blum also makes it personal.  She recounts real poisoning cases and tells us the background stories of some of the criminals who were caught and put on trial.  Some were found guilty; others got away with murder mostly because the lab testing wasn’t good enough to convince juries beyond a reasonable doubt.  These human stories make the scientific aspects interesting and put a human touch on both sides of the struggle.

Check out the PBS video here:

I thought the chapter on alcohol dragged a little.  Blum goes back into the politics and consequences of prohibition and recounts how bootleg gin was actually made from dangerous types of alcohol—that easily poisoned the people who drank it in speakeasies.  For me, the history was informative and a warning about the present day criminalization of some drugs, but I was more interested in the exotic poisons.

Still, she will show you the real forensic science in a fascinating way.  Even today, brilliant criminals are constantly testing different ways to commit murder without being detected.  Maybe it could be you . . ??

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About Colin Nelson

Colin T. Nelson worked for 40 years as a prosecutor and criminal defense lawyer in Minneapolis. He tried everything from speeding tickets to first degree murder. His writing about the courtroom and the legal system give the reader a "back door" view of what goes on, what's funny, and what's a good story. He has also traveled extensively and includes those locations in his mysteries. Some are set in Southeast Asia, Ecuador,Peru, and South Africa. Readers get a suspenseful tale while learning about new places on the planet. Colin is married, has two adult children, and plays the saxophone in various bands.

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