The Poisoner's Handbook: murder and the birth of forensic medicine in jazz age New York is a wonderfully written exploration of the start of serious forensic medicine in the United States. At the turn of the twentieth-century, the job of Coroner was assigned by the mayor in most major cities. These positions were given for reasons of favor or nepotism or graft. Many times the Coroner was not even a doctor.
New York set about to change that by setting up an actual Forensic Medicine department with the Chief Medical Examiner being a serious doctor who helped define forensic medicine in the US. Dr. Charles Norris took his new responsibilities very seriously. He hired the chief chemist at Bellevue Hospital, Alexander Gettler, and the book is really their story of finding ways to determine if someone died of poison.
It was very difficult to determine if someone died of poison and Gettler had to experiment many times and in many ways to see if poisons were retained in the vital organs, in the stomach or even in the skin and hair. We owe a lot to Gettler's experiments and to Norris' complete backing of the experiments and the findings.
But it wasn't just murder that they had to deal with. Even though less people were drinking under Prohibition, more people were dying. Gettler and Norris had to figure out what was killing so many people. The culprit was methyl alcohol. (Methyl alcohol is toxic and is currently used in antifreeze, solvents and fuels--methanol.) The work of Gettler and Norris contributed to ending Prohibition because they could statistically show what happened to those who drank the "alcohol" in whatever form under Prohibition.
The story and facts are laid out nicely and The Poisoner's Handbook reads very quickly. Just follow along as Norris fights city hall and Gettler fights to understand how different drugs such as cyanide and chloroform and radium kill.