Thursday, March 31, 2016

The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, by Deborah Blum

Penguin Press, 2010
319 pp


One day I left this book downstairs in the kitchen right next to the coffee maker intending to take it upstairs later,  and the next thing I knew there's a post on my husband's facebook page with a photo of this book that reads as follows:

"Hmmmmm, first she has me get more life insurance - then I see this book.  #eatouttonight‬?"

I didn't really ask for more life insurance, but his post is kind of spot on regarding this book -- one of the main points in Blum's study is that for a very long time, people who were so inclined could get away with murder when it came to poisoning.  With very few exceptions, in this period of time there were a wide range of toxic poisons that were basically undetectable, used as a weapon to get rid of unwanted people.  That all starts to change with the advent of serious forensic medicine during the 1920s, especially under the auspices of two major figures:  Dr. Charles Norris, and Dr. Alexander Gettler.  Norris was New York's Chief Medical Examiner, while Gettler was a brilliant toxicologist -- together the two started to change not only the way in which science was used in crime cases, but also the emphasis on how government should work to protect its citizens.  Beyond being just plain interesting, it's also a very good look at politics of the time, at the failures and dangers of Prohibition, and at the unsuspected dangers that lie hidden in some every-day products and how science worked to study them and ultimately lead the fight in making lives safer.  

Each section is related under a title heading bearing the name of a poisonous substance.  In each there is a case centered around that specific substance that opens the discussion, then a bit about the history, followed by a bit of scientific info and how scientists came to realize just how very deadly these substances could be. Then it's back to the case and the work of Norris and Gettler in trying to solve the many riddles each case presented, along with warnings to the public based on their findings.  Just as an example, let's take the chapter on Cyanides.  This section whets the reader appetite by starting with two deaths attributed to alcohol but which were in reality caused by poisoning by potassium cyanide.  As the author notes, by the time the true cause was discovered, "the killer, whoever he was, was long gone."  We then move into a bigger, more high-profile case having nothing to do with alcohol, but rather with the deaths of two people in an upscale hotel in Brooklyn.  A man and his wife were discovered dead in their locked room,  and while the ME's office realized it was poison, how exactly they died was a true mystery.  Before getting on with the case, though, Blum gives her readers a brief history of cyanides (there's more than one), the science behind them, and how they work on the human body.  Then we go back to earlier scientific attempts at cyanide detection, Gettler's work and the work of the police in trying to solve this strange crime.   Blum  adds in another earlier case from 1898 to further illustrate how a poisoner had escaped detection and justice, finally following the hotel case to its solution, prosecution and aftermath.  Fascinating stuff, actually, and while I don't even pretend to get the actual science of it all, Blum's brief explanations are enlightening and very interesting to read. 

The biggest focus in this book is how science as a tool in bringing killers to justice (and to exonerate the wrongly-charged innocent) began to be taken seriously, especially in the courts where it was previously undermined or derided.  Because of the beliefs espoused by Norris that a medical examiner should take his job seriously, that he or she has a duty to the public and to the course of justice, and that he/she should be a scientist and not an unqualified political appointee who makes money off of dead bodies and granting favors to highly-placed people, forensic medicine and forensic science  in general became a powerful force which is heavily relied on today, nearly a century after Norris & Gettler first got things rolling in this country.   However, beyond that, the author reveals how after Gettler, Norris and a few others took on the science behind some products that people used in their lives on a daily basis and discovered that these things were killing people, one of the most important outcomes was the sharing of their findings with government officials, with hopes that the government would take steps to protect its citizens.   Norris often had to fight not only city hall, but other government agencies whose interests coincided with big business -- for example, in his fight against leaded gasoline and especially against cheap, poisoned alcohol served to the poor during Prohibition.   Sometimes he won and sometimes he wasn't so lucky, but as things turned out, he was right.  One of the most fascinating stories in this book, for example, was about radium -- previously believed to be a substance very good for one's health and bottled in tonics or in "radium water" etc.,   Gettler and another scientist discovered just how very lethal it was and were beyond instrumental in getting these products banned.  

One interesting side note re a case I already know something about: Gettler was the guy who proved that Ruth Snyder was lying about her injuries on the night she and Judd Gray killed her husband, ultimately leading to their conviction, imprisonment and electrocution for the murder. And, as it turned out, he also proved that Ruth's husband would have died soon anyway -- ironically, his "brain was sodden with bootleg alcohol," which not only would have been lethal on its own, but also trashed Gray's testimony that Snyder came at him and he had to defend himself.  Snyder was so out of it, Gettler noted, that he "couldn't have even been propped upright to fight." 

from PBS online 

I first came across this book when one night, I couldn't sleep and decided to watch anything I could find remotely interesting at 2 a.m. and chose an American Experience episode with this title. I was hooked and then discovered that there was a book and that's all it took.  I enjoyed The Poisoner's Handbook -- one thing it did for me was that  it hit home that in some ways a lot has changed (and happily so) since that time but in others, a lot remains the same.  Today, like in the 1920s, many pro-business interests in government continue to represent the interests of corporations at the expense of the people who work in their industries; there are still people who for some reason I do not fathom continue to insist that science is wrong, undermining the work of skilled, brilliant people for some political or financial reasons.  One more thing -- this book takes more of a journalistic approach making it highly accessible to everyone, which is a good thing.  I have only one negative thing to say and that's that each chapter ends in some sort of anecdote which not only adds unnecessary fluff but gets tiresome after a while. A lot of readers might enjoy that, but I'm all about keeping the flow going so I didn't.  But that is just such a nit-picky kind of thing that really did not make my interest flag or prevent me from being absorbed in this book, and I highly recommend it, especially to people who are into historical true crime.  

Monday, March 14, 2016

*She Who Was No More, by Pierre Boileau and Thomas Narcejac

Pushkin Vertigo, 2015
originally published as Celle qui n'était plus, 1952
translated by Geoffrey Sainsbury
190 pp


At the end of the movie Diabolique (the movie based on this book from 1955), the credits are just about over and suddenly there's a message to the viewers.  In a nutshell, it asks anyone who's just seen the movie to keep quiet -- to not reveal to your friends what you've just watched. So I'll be doing the same here with the novel, for the most part.  Mum's the word.   Shhhhh!  I will say, though, that the book is NOT the film, so read the book first and then go watch the movie -- to do it in the reverse order won't be fair to the novel.

She Who Was No More is less of an action novel than the study of a man terrorized and tormented by guilt, and a large part of this book takes place inside the mind of the main character.  Fernand Ravinel is a traveling salesman whose job takes him away from home on a regular basis. He had taken a law degree, but sells sporting goods (loves making flies for fishing),  and in his mind shortly after the novel opens he's thinking about the little shop in Antibes he's going to have some day in the future. Ravinel is just an ordinary guy, living a pretty ordinary, mundane life, and he isn't in the best health. He is also "sick to death, sick of life, sick of everything," and "What's more, he always would be."

 He is married to Mireille whom he describes as a "nice little thing. Insignificant however," and  their mutual friend is Lucienne, a physician. Lucienne had lived with the couple for a brief while, and she also happens to be Ravinel's mistress.  Ravinel doesn't quite remember "Which of them had really chosen the other," but he does know that
"What had brought them together was not mutual attraction, but something residing in the deeper and darker recesses of the spirit." 
He also gets that she is attracted to power -- "she had to reign: it was an imperious necessity;" he is also, it seems, a bit afraid of her, or at least afraid not to do as she tells him so he has no problem going along with her murderous plan that she explains will benefit them both.  While they take precautions against getting caught, and while Lucienne is the main actor here, he still has a major role to play before all is said and done.  However, things go terribly wrong, and Fernand is in for what may be the biggest surprise of his life, which sends him down into a well of torment and spiraling down into more than a touch of madness.    This is pretty much what is written on the back cover blurb, so I'm not yet spoiling anything here, and certainly don't plan to do so.

Here the focus is on the characters; once the plan is set into motion, what comes next is mainly derived from Ravinel's tormented brain.   However, to me, the one to watch in this story is Lucienne, since  there are plenty of hints left by Boileau and Narcejac  that perhaps she just might not be all that she seems to be on the surface.   

And then there's the imagery, beginning right away with the fog.  As just one example, it turns out that as a child, Ravinel used to play this weird game where he'd make himself disappear into a dense fog, then consider himself doing an astral projection sort of thing where he'd make the crossing from the world of the living into the world of the dead.  But fog also can be a great metaphor implying not only ghosts and things that are obscured and distorted; here it also works as an awesome metaphor for ignorance.   Boileau and Narcejac, just as they did in their later Vertigo, end up not only foreshadowing what's coming but actually telegraphing future events, yet they manage to do it without falling into the trap of giving away too much.  It's very well done and the book takes you deep into some very disturbed minds down to the very last words in the book.

If you look at the Pushkin cover of this novel, there is a very small picture of a bathtub, which also features prominently in the film, but aside from tormented guilt and the action around the tub, the book and movie are incredibly different, although I'm not going to describe how in too much detail.  Let's just say that the film, like the book, is great and should definitely not be missed.  Both reflect a slowly-developing madness and paranoia among tortured and guilty souls; that's about the extent of what's common between both. However, the book stands on its own, and as in Vertigo, the reader really gets the idea of someone caught between two worlds, that of the dead and that of the living.  An excellent book; readers who enjoy more of an existentialist bent will find it delightfully dark, while readers looking for the film's action may be somewhat disappointed.

Highly, highly recommended -- I seriously hope more of the work of Boileau and Nacerjac will be translated some day.

Tuesday, March 8, 2016

reading in tandem: The Double Indemnity Murder, by Landis MacKellar and A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion, by Ron Hansen

My real-world book group recently read Double Indemnity, by James M. Cain (which, to my surprise,   they didn't care for, leaving me a bit stunned)  and in preparing for the discussion, I learned that Cain's novel had its roots in a real-life crime where double indemnity played a role in a murder.  I love historical true crime done well, and since my little grey cells were tired and needed a thinking break,  I grabbed my copy of  Landis MacKellar's The Double Indemnity Murder: Ruth Snyder, Judd Gray, & New York's Crime of the Century.   Then I discovered that Ron Hansen had written a novel based on the same crime, A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion, so I read that one right after.  The true crime account is worth reading not so much for the crime, but rather for the dynamic duo (she says snarkily) that decided to do away with a husband for $90+ thousand dollars in the 1920s (almost 1.3 million in today's equivalent).  

As far as murdering goes, housewife Ruth Snyder and corset salesman Judd Gray (shown here on the cover) were hopelessly inept at their craft.  Snyder latched onto Gray via sex and promises of a happy future together, and cooked up a plan to get rid of her husband Albert.  The long and short of it is that they did it, made it look like Albert was killed during a burglary, but they messed it all up and were caught immediately.  That's when the story really starts. Using transcripts, newspaper accounts, personal narratives and interviews,  MacKellar does a wonderful job here of relating "New York's crime of the century," right up until shortly after both went to the chair.  I was caught up in this story, as I said, not so much for the crime, but because of the people. I ended up feeling sorry for Judd Gray, who was definitely no match for Ruth Snyder; yes, I know he took part in a murder, but still. Had she not come along, I don't know if he'd ever kill anyone; she, on the other hand, was more or less a sociopath in the guise of a perfect housewife who canned peaches.  I think whoever she set her sights on would have been in big trouble.  It does move beyond the crime to examine, among other things,  the press and what reporters would do to keep a big story in the news. 

Fictionalizing this story is Ron Hansen, whose A Wild Surge of Guilty Passion also uses the same accounts along with MacKellar's book to tell his version of this tale.  It starts out so nicely, giving readers a Gray who is in ongoing, visible conflict because of his relationship with Ruth Snyder. It also offers a view of Ruth I gleaned from MacKellar's work -- the coldhearted woman who left her kid in a hotel lobby while she and Gray did the do in a room, the would-be killer of her husband who attempted to get rid of him more than once with a series of accidents, waiting for the insurance policy to be processed before she did the real thing.  Had he kept going this route it would have a nearly-perfect novel.  But sadly, after giving us some great insights into Gray and Snyder's characters, 

after the murder his book starts to read more like a book of true crime.  Had I not read the nonfiction version first, maybe things would have been better, but I felt like he could have done so much more with this book considering how well he'd  portrayed Gray up to that point.  Judd Gray is definitely the one to watch in all of this,  since the question really is this:  why did this man allow himself to do what he did when everything about him just screams nice guy? It is a topic I find absolutely fascinating, and it's a bit sad that Hansen was traveling this road for a long time, then just sort of let that ball drop. 

So taken together in tandem, what we have here is the proverbial mixed bag. The nonfiction account, for people who are interested in historical true crime, is well worth the read not just for the crime, but for the aftermath and a look at the police, the courts, politics, the press, the death penalty, and New York during the jazz age.   Hansen's novel could have been great but in my opinion, the book just sort of loses steam at the end.  Having said that, I'm happy to have read both, and I'd heartily recommend The Double Indemnity Murder,  less so Hansen's book, which was just great up until after the arrests.  And don't expect Double Indemnity, as it seems so many readers did going into the novel.