Death in the Air was an unexpected find at last year’s BookExpo that I finally got around to reading. The subtitle is what got me - “The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City”. I wondered how author Kate Winkler Dawson would weave together these two stories of serial killer, John Reginald Christie and the four day smog that killed thousands. The story comes together in Parliament of all places - competing priorities and differing political agendas. Death in the Air is an interesting history lesson of murder that was never completely resolved.
It’s a 1952 London winter. Fog is a common occurrence in London, as we know. Post war England is financially struggling, they are in rebuilding mode, and industry is pumping out toxic fumes along with production. Coal is the primary source of energy, with two kinds in circulation - a “higher quality” and expensive black coal; and nutty slack, a cheaper, more toxic heat source that the working class use to fill their fireplaces. As a fog descends upon the city on December 4th, factories continue to operate and people go to work. During this time, it’s reported that you would hardly be able to see your hand in front of you, driving is impossible, criminals have their way, and the soot is everywhere, clinging to hair and clothing, being ingested into lungs. After five days of the smoke and fog thousands die from the poisonous gases. It’s not until a year later a report is released stating 4,000 people died due to the smog. And it’s some 50 years later, when the true, staggering number is released - over 12,000 people dead due to the smog.
Smog at this time was not uncommon in the post war industrialization era. Pennsylvania and New York experienced days of severe smog, as well as other cities in Europe. Clean Air Acts started to come into existence in the U.S. around 1950 as a result. England was slower to act. And, like today, in all cases, politics ruled the day. Balancing financial prosperity and physical health of citizenry needed compromise. The English government and the press certainly let their people down to provide a timely and effective reaction to the crisis.
At the same time, the press became obsessed with a new scandal of serial killer John Reginald Christie. Over several years, and culminating at the time of the smog and following months, Christie sexually assaulted and murdered several women, then buried them in his garden or home. It’s an incredibly strange tale, and it seized the attention of the press and the public, ever hungry for a salacious story. Once finally apprehended, Christie confessed, but his stories varied. He loved the limelight and performed accordingly, so the press ate it up. The murders included another possible killer three years prior and were never completely resolved. The trials put into doubt the death of the earlier accused man and played a role in changing Britain’s capital punishment laws.
Conveyed through her journalistic lens, Dawson’s deep research on both these killers makes for an interesting historical read.
Publisher: Machete Books
Vickie’s rating: 3 stars