Forensic Toxicology and the Inner-Circle Thrill

If, like me, you are counting down the hours to Masterpiece Mystery!’s “Sherlock” Season 3 (launching later this month), you may appreciate the whodunit quotient in “The Poisoner’s Handbook,” a very interesting documentary airing tonight, Jan. 7, 8:00-10:00 pm ET on PBS (check local listings) as part of the American Experience series. A tale of the birth and maturing of forensic chemistry in New York City beginning in 1918, “The Poisoner’s Handbook” chronicles a series of murders and suspicious deaths that were solved by two scientists of Holmesian genius and rationality: Charles Norris, a groundbreaking New York City medical examiner, and Alexander Gettler, the pioneering toxicologist who was Norris’s colleague.

Over several decades, starting around World War I, the two men worked on cases that had to do not only with cold, calculating homicide, but with Prohibition, Standard Oil and leaded gasoline, poverty during the Great Depression, and a notorious case of radium poisoning at a watch factory. According to the documentary, directed by Rob Rapley, the two men built forensic science into a respected institution—without them, there would have been no “CSI,” no Patricia Cornwell novels.

It’s a suspenseful yet educational documentary, packed with old film footage and shots of sensational early 20th-century newspaper headlines. It does use reenactments—a technique I usually find annoyingly cheesy. But these reenactments are atmospheric, and appear carefully done (lots of glimpses of early 20th-century laboratories and primitive-looking morgues). When I interviewed Rapley about a year ago about his fascinating documentary series “The Abolitionists,” he told me that he had initially hesitated to use reenactments, but ultimately had decided that they added a needed visual dynamism, and that an abundance of reliable written records allowed for scripting the reenactments with great accuracy. I haven’t spoken to him this time round, but after watching “The Poisoner’s Handbook,” I would assume that the rationale for reenactments in this case was the same.

The perennial popularity of police, detective and hospital story programs on television demonstrates that audiences love to get behind-the-scenes glimpse of professional procedure—the kind of detail that abounds in “The Poisoner’s Handbook.” The attraction is partly voyeuristic thrill, but I think procedure-heavy stories also give us the comforting illusion of being part of a team or select professional circle. In an era that often seems increasingly impersonal, when people telecommute, and text instead of talk, and work in specialized fields that others can barely comprehend, enthusiasm for behind-the-scenes police lab and medical diagnostic stories—stories that provide an illusion of professional companionship and inner-circle reassurance—will surely only increase. (Mystery fans will be interested to note that Dr. Marcella Fierro, a forensic expert interviewed in “The Poisoner’s Handbook,” is the former chief medical examiner for Virginia who inspired the figure of Kay Scarpetta in Patricia Cornwell’s novels.)

After tonight’s airing, “The Poisoner’s Handbook” will be available on DVD or for online viewing on pbs.org, according to the press release. There is also a related “interactive online graphic novel.”

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Celia Wren is Commonweal’s media and stage critic.

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