by Deborah Blum)
“Don’t wear black,” they said.
That was the firmest instruction on how to dress that I received from the producers of a documentary film based on my book, The Poisoner’s Handbook, when I flew to New York a year ago to be interviewed for my part of the story.
Damn it, about 90 percent of my wardrobe was black. Dark gray. Muted colors, as they like to say. But they were filming me in the dark library of a 19th century mansion in Oyster Bay, New York and they were afraid that I would disappear into gloom. I had a sudden vision of myself as a nothing more than a pale face looming out of the darkness.
Although perhaps that would be appropriate for the author a book about poison and murder. We’ll find out tomorrow night when the film airs on American Experience – at 8 p.m. eastern/ 7 p.m. central (my time zone). I’m proud to say that it’s the premiere episode for the season.
And I want to say that although the film has the same title as my book and although I’m in it (as a pale face in the gloom) the real stars of this story are the two scientific heroes, Charles Norris, the first medical examiner of New York City, and Alexander Gettler, his pioneering toxicologist. They worked in an underfunded city department to lay down the foundation of forensic investigation in this country during the 1920s. They solved murders, established rules for public health, and literally had to figure out the science as they went, and wrote the handbook of poison detection for generations to come.
There’s some wonderful dramatic recreation of their work and their murder cases in the film. As the reviewer for McClatchy Newspapers noted this was a time of wet chemistry and bloody samples in any laboratory: “Don’t watch unless sliced human stomach being fed into a blender is acceptable viewing.” As you might guess, that’s completely acceptable to me – I only wish I’d been there to watch them film it. Especially when the crew from Brooklyn’s Apograph Productions went to Prague to film the 1920s New York scenes. Somehow they didn’t seem to need the author for that part.
My favorite advance review though is from the science writer and blogger Christie Wilcox at Discover magazine. I’ll give away why when I tell you that title is PBS’s Poisoner’s Handbook is Killer. Yes, it’s a smart pun but it’s also a smart and thoughtful (and positive) review: “Balancing the fine line between murder mystery and documentary, the series captures the captivating, case-driven nature of the book while staying true to the fact-based, scientific style of PBS.”
I think you can count on me being tuned into American Experience tomorrow tonight I hope some of you will join me there. If you’re wondering, I ended up wearing a lovely olive green while being filmed in New York. But tomorrow I’ll be dressed in my best party black.
Deborah Blum is a Pulitzer-Prize winning science writer and the author of five books, most recently the best-seller, The Poisoner's Handbook: Murder and the Birth of Forensic Medicine in Jazz Age New York. She writes for a range of publications including Time, Scientific American, Slate, The Wall Street Journal, The Los Angeles Times (and even the literary journal, Tin House). She is currently working on a sixth book about poisonous food.
Follow @deborahblum on Twitter.