Book review: Poisons: From Hemlock to Botox to the Killer Bean of Calabar

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My taste in books runs a little macabre, but I make no apologies. They are educational, after all, since the volumes I seek are nonfiction layman's reads about the spread of disease, the development of antiseptics and the history of surgery. It's grim, chilling and never dull.

Something I learned in high school: One word for poison in German is
  • Something I learned in high school: In German, one word for poison is gift.

So I naturally reached for Poisons: From Hemlock to Botox to the Killer Bean of Calabar at the library last week, hoping to get a jump on my dark interest. (I'm waiting on a review copy of The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York, which comes out next week.) And it was totally boring.

Author Peter Macinnis' penchant for flowery language and flat attempts at humor get tiring quickly, and then all the more irritating when he randomly jumps into the complex realm of toxicology. Basically, the average reader looking for the stories behind strychnine and arsenic receives a jumble of dry text peppered with chemistry-speak and lame pokes in the ribs.

Some passages of note include Macinnis' (somewhat generalized) study of 19th-century Britain, when poisons were added to all forms of food, drink and medicine, and not just to murder anyone. A brewery once added a toxin to its beer to simulate the effects of drunkenness, rather than just letting the alcohol and yeasts take the time to ferment (alcohol is a poison in itself, Macinnis notes, but one we can heal from in moderation). It was a money-saving trick, much the way candy-makers added plaster of Paris to certain treats to extend their supply of flour.

So Poisons I wouldn't recommend, but other similar titles I can offer confidently are: Stiff: The Curious Lives of Cadavers, an extremely popular book by Mary Roach about what happens to dead bodies (those donated to science are quite interesting) and The Ghost Map: The Story of London's Most Terrifying Epidemic — and How It Changed Science, Cities, and the Modern World by Steven Johnson, a fascinating study of London's fiercest cholera outbreak and the discovery of waterborne illness.

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