Cover image for Death in the air : the true story of a serial killer, the great London smog, and the strangling of a city
Title:
Death in the air : the true story of a serial killer, the great London smog, and the strangling of a city
Edition:
First edition.
Publication Information:
New York : Hachette Books, 2017.

©2017
ISBN:
9780316506861
Physical Description:
viii, 341 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm
Language:
English
Contents:
Pressure -- Blackout -- Restrained -- Trapped -- Bodies in the mist -- Postmortem -- Smothered -- Hearth and home -- Squeezed -- Buried -- Illumination -- Infamous -- Legacy.
Abstract:
In winter 1952, London automobiles and thousands of coal-burning hearths belched particulate matter into the air. But the smog that descended on December 5th of 1952 was different; it was a type that held the city hostage for five long days. Mass transit ground to a halt, criminals roamed the streets, and 12,000 people died. That same month, there was another killer at large in London: John Reginald Christie, who murdered at least six women. In a braided narrative that draws on extensive interviews, never-before-published material, and archival research, Dawson captivatingly recounts the intersecting stories of the these two killers and their longstanding impact on modern history.
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Summary

Summary

A real-life thriller in the vein of The Devil in the White City, Kate Winkler Dawson's debut Death in the Air is a gripping, historical narrative of a serial killer, an environmental disaster, and an iconic city struggling to regain its footing.

London was still recovering from the devastation of World War II when another disaster hit: for five long days in December 1952, a killer smog held the city firmly in its grip and refused to let go. Day became night, mass transit ground to a halt, criminals roamed the streets, and some 12,000 people died from the poisonous air. But in the chaotic aftermath, another killer was stalking the streets, using the fog as a cloak for his crimes.

All across London, women were going missing--poor women, forgotten women. Their disappearances caused little alarm, but each of them had one thing in common: they had the misfortune of meeting a quiet, unassuming man, John Reginald Christie, who invited them back to his decrepit Notting Hill flat during that dark winter. They never left.

The eventual arrest of the "Beast of Rillington Place" caused a media frenzy: were there more bodies buried in the walls, under the floorboards, in the back garden of this house of horrors? Was it the fog that had caused Christie to suddenly snap? And what role had he played in the notorious double murder that had happened in that same apartment building not three years before--a murder for which another, possibly innocent, man was sent to the gallows?

The Great Smog of 1952 remains the deadliest air pollution disaster in world history, and John Reginald Christie is still one of the most unfathomable serial killers of modern times. Journalist Kate Winkler Dawson braids these strands together into a taut, compulsively readable true crime thriller about a man who changed the fate of the death penalty in the UK, and an environmental catastrophe with implications that still echo today.


Reviews 5

Publisher's Weekly Review

Lethal air pollution brushes up against a gruesome strangler in this evocative but scattered historical study. Journalist Dawson recreates the London smog of December 1952, when a windless high-pressure system prevented fumes from the city's coal-burning heaters, stoves, and smokestacks from dispersing; the resulting yellow-brown, soot-flecked miasma reduced visibility to one yard and seeped into houses, killing thousands of people. Dawson's account of environmental catastrophe is vividly atmospheric as she describes Londoners staggering blindly in the fog and watching loved ones die. Jammed in is the story of John Reginald Christie, a sad-sack serial killer who murdered several women years before the smog and several more in the months afterward, but who did nothing noteworthy during the smog itself. Other than serving as a metaphorical embodiment of the smog (he asphyxiated victims with coal gas), Christie has no clear purpose in the narrative, but his story does supply an intriguing true-crime subplot in the smog's aftermath while parliamentary debate about the smog drags on. The smushed-together narratives add up to a grim, Dickensian portrait of postwar London: broke, grimy, dejected, deranged around the edges, and gasping for breath. (Oct.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.


Kirkus Review

Intertwining stories of two infamous killers in postwar London.In her first book, documentary producer Dawson (Journalism/Univ. of Texas) provides more of an examination of the London smog of 1952 than the murderous actions of serial killer John Reginald Christie (1899-1953). Because the smog was a more prolific killer than Christie, that story unquestionably warrants the author's attention. Over five days, London was overcome by a "fog"later rebranded as smogso thick that visibility was almost nonexistent, and the air filled with toxic levels of multiple pollutants. More than 4,000 people died in the weeks immediately following the smog, and another 7,000-8,000 deaths were attributed to the poisonous air over the subsequent few months. In the same winter, Christie murdered four women, including his wife, bringing his total known victims to six. Dawson deftly weaves the tales together in an engrossing narrative that reads like a thriller. Christie's story benefits from being told alongside that of the smog, creating a more sinister, darkly romantic atmosphere than a traditional true-crime book. The main weaknesses in Dawson's debut concern the endings of the two primary narrative threads. In the case of the smog, the author effectively shows how the government's too-little, too-late solutions to keep the deadly event from repeating itself were completely unsatisfactory, but she doesn't go deep enough into how woefully inadequate they proved to be. Regarding Christie, in an anticlimactic conclusion, he confessed and was hanged seemingly because he decided he didn't feel like hiding the bodies anymore. Dawson could hardly have embellished Christie's story, but as Christmas 1953 approached, doctors were concerned about the solutions offered by the British government, and some follow-up there would have been welcome. Despite a few minor flaws, readers will remain hooked on this compelling story and will eagerly await Dawson's next book. Copyright Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.


Booklist Review

Journalist Dawson writes the parallel, shocking histories of the suffocating smog that menaced London, ultimately killing thousands, in December 1952, and a serial killer's salacious murders and trial the following year. Dawson depicts a London eerily primed for disaster, the overcrowded city still trying to right itself after the two world wars and well accustomed to presumably nonthreatening bouts of intense fog. But in 1952, weather conditions, coal and diesel pollution, and the domestic use of cheap, unrationed, filthy-burning coal dust called nutty slack combined to be much worse and deadlier than Londoners' average peasouper. Meanwhile, in Notting Hill, the neighborhood then synonymous with tenements and crime, John Christie was preparing to add more strangled women to the collection hidden on his property. Focusing on the powerful press' response to both killers and offering food for thought on what constitutes crime, responsibility, and progress, Dawson delves into heated parliamentary debates between Churchill's Conservative cabinet and Laborite agitators; first-person accounts from doctors, policemen, and other smog survivors; court records; and Christie's own, jaw-dropping account of his murders.--Bostrom, Annie Copyright 2017 Booklist


New York Review of Books Review

THE MUTILATED BODY of a beautiful young woman is dumped in a vacant lot.... The heir to an industrial empire is kidnapped and killed, possibly by accident.... A woman spends 40 years hunting the man who murdered her college friend.... A serial killer eludes the police by disappearing into a fog.... I'd happily read any novel on these dismal subjects, but fans of bleak crime fiction are out of luck here. These spine-tingling stories all happen to be true - and, in some cases, even stranger than fiction. BLACK DAHLIA, RED ROSE: The Crime, Corruption, and Cover-Up of America's Greatest Unsolved Murder (Liveright, $26.95), by PIU Eatwell, provides fresh evidence that we can never get enough of our favorite pin-up corpse. Elizabeth Short was 22 years old when her nude and savagely mutilated body was discovered in mid-January of 1947 at the edge of an empty lot in Los Angeles. "Nobody had expected her to be so sullenly beautiful," says Eatwell, who speculates that Short's striking beauty - which inspired the infatuated press to call her "The Black Dahlia" ("evocative of an exotic flower, of desire both toxic and intoxicating") - prompted her enduring legend. "Her story became a morality tale," Eatwell writes in this juicy page-turner, "a fable illustrating the dangers posed to women by early-20th-century 'Hollywood': a space of adventure and freedom, glamour, ruthless commercialism and dangerously uncircumscribed female sexuality." That's nicely put, capturing both the allure and the perils of the dream factory that promised riches and fame to star-struck young women from tired little towns all over war-weary America and who, even today, find themselves at the mercy of predatory men. The original mass migration to Los Angeles created, as one observer put it, a subculture of uprooted single women: "tall girls and short girls, curly-haired girls and girls with their hair drawn sleekly back over their brows, girls who suggest mignonettes and girls who suggest tuberoses; girls in aprons and girls in evening gowns - girls by the score, their faces all grease paint, waiting in little chattering groups for their big moment." For all its salacious content, Eatwell's historical crime study is an expansive work that delves into the broader culture of postwar Los Angeles, "a city of bright lights and darker shadows, where cops fraternized with mobsters and girls sold themselves for the promise of a bit part in a movie." Her zealous efforts to solve the case and name the killer are less than convincing, but her immersive style is filled with camera-ready period detail. THE RICH ARE HUMAN TOO. That's the message to take from THE DEATH OF AN HEIR: Adolph Coors III and the Murder That Rocked an American Brewing Dynasty (St. Martin's, $27.99), Philip Jett's compassionate appraisal of the tragedy that shattered the family of Adolph (Ad) Herman Joseph Coors ?, when the 44-year-old chairman of the board of the Colorado beer company died during a botched kidnapping. The calamity couldn't have happened to a more undeserving member of his moneyed class. Ad Coors was devoted to his wife and four children and lived a relatively simple, scandal-free life. (The white-over-turquoise International Harvester Travelall he drove was a modest indulgence.) Being a severe stutterer (which angered his formidably stern father) and allergic to beer (which didn't help either), he wasn't even his father's favorite son. But as the eldest of three brothers (their sister didn't count) he was destined from birth to take over the family enterprises. Joe Corbett was more impressed with Ad's position than Ad was. A plotter and a planner who didn't think robbing a bank was worth the effort, Corbett picked a softer target, and on the morning of Feb. 9,1960, he intercepted Ad at the Türkey Creek Bridge as he was driving to work. Somehow, the kidnapping turned into what may have been an accidental killing, leading to "the largest U.S. manhunt since the Lindbergh kidnapping." Although Jett's chronological narrative is pretty straightforward, certain forensic details, like the use of fingerprint analysis and dental records, should please techno-wonks - as should the fact that the case was solved by identifying varieties of paper stock and models of typewriters. Did the smog smother the murders or did the murders obscure the smog? That's the terrible question Kate Winkler Dawson raises in DEATH IN THE AIR: The True Story of a Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City (Hachette, $27), her deeply researched and densely atmospheric study of two intersecting events in London, the murder spree of John Reginald (Reg) Christie and the Great Smog of 1952. It was bitter cold that December, prompting the city's eight million residents to pile on the coal briquettes and draw close to the fire. At the time, Britain was selling its best black coal to foreign countries and palming off the dirty brown stuff on its own people, who couldn't afford the better coal anyway. But this cheaper means of heating proved deadly, asphyxiating 4,000 Londoners and leaving thousands more gasping. The death toll was so high that undertakers ran out of coffins. Shifting weather patterns contributed to the disaster, trapping pollutants over the city, grounding planes and suspending traffic. Theaters, hotels and restaurants operated on reduced staff when workers were unable to report; in any case, few of their patrons were willing or able to venture out. Day after day, the "peasouper" hung in the air and the roaring fires burned in the city's hearths. "Swirls of fog," Dawson explains, "were romantic and beguiling to Londoners." And the "affinity for an open fire was virtually a requirement for being British." Meanwhile, the fog rolling over 10 Rillington Place proved a satanic blessing, smothering the little garden where Reg Christie was industriously planting the bodies of the eight women he'd killed. (Ironically, he'd enticed some of them into his flat with the promise of a special cough medicine that would clear their smog-filled lungs.) This diligent gardener wasn't entirely secretive about what he was up to, even using a human thighbone to prop up the garden fence. " 'Neighbors watched me digging,' he said. 'They nodded 'cheerios' to me.' " Until he was brought to trial the following year, the infamous "Beast of Rillington Place" may have been the only person in London to delight in the Great Fog. ANY BOOK WITH "BELLE ÉPOQUE" in the title puts me in mind of Woody Allen's enchanting fantasy film, "Midnight in Paris," in which Pablo Picasso's mistress and her present-day American lover travel back in time to the glorious era when Paris was the playground of great artists like Toulouse-Lautrec, Gauguin and Degas. John Merriman's BALLAD OF THE ANARCHIST BANDITS: The Crime Spree That Gripped Belle Époque Paris (Nation Books, $28) tells another story of that era - not the romance of the "Ville Lumiere" with its dazzling palaces and grand hotels but the dark tale of a city in the grip of a crime wave. "The guidebooks never mentioned the quartiers populates," Merriman notes, "or the impoverished suburbs of Paris, where most of the workers who ran the trams, built the popular new cars and cleaned the city lived." It took the anarchists to argue, often violently, that working people were suffering from "increased mechanization, the decline of apprenticeship, the increase in piece rates, speedups and the beginnings of scientific management in large factories." Merriman's subject is the rise and fall of the Bonnot Gang, but he shrewdly wraps his historical analysis in the arms of a love story. Rirette Maîtrejean and Victor Kibaltchiche met on the battlements of the class war, which fueled their affair and gave it purpose. But Jules Bonnot, the leader of their gang, was more committed to plunder than to the cause. "Our blood pays for the luxury of the wealthy" went the anarchist battle cry. "Our enemy is the master. Long live anarchy!" Yet Bonnot just wanted to get his hands on that upper-class loot. Some true-crime books aren't the least bit romantic, and they're usually the ones that break your heart. Dashka Slater wrote THE 57 BUS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, $17.99) for teenagers, but her audience should also include parents. The two youngsters from Oakland, Calif., whose paths cross so disastrously are both extremely likable. Sasha, a boy who attends a small private school and "identifies as agender," is on the bus going home when Richard, a junior at the public high school who's goofing off, puts a lighter to the gauzy skirt Sasha's wearing. The skirt goes up in flames, Sasha receives second- and third-degree burns, and Richard is accused of two hate-crime felonies. Charged as an adult, he faces the possibility of spending the rest of his life in prison. Slater, who wrote a shorter account of this story that ran in The New York Times Magazine, views these bare facts from a firm sociological perspective. Sasha comes from a nice neighborhood up in the hills. Richard lives in the flatlands of East Oakland, where two-thirds of the city's murders occur. "The schools are shabbier here; the test scores are lower. There's more trash on the streets, more roaming dogs, more liquor stores, fewer grocery stores." Slater doesn't apologize for Richard; she just asks us to consider where he came from and to question the ingrained prejudice of a legal system that eventually locked him up for five years. Even Sasha's father recognized that what Richard did was "impulsive, immature and unpremeditated." Michael ARNTFIELD makes the most of the local crimes he covers in MAD CITY: The True Story of the Campus Murders That America Forgot (Little A, $24.95) by hitching them to some of Wisconsin's more flamboyant murder cases. Regional pride was excuse enough to bring up notables like the "Plainfield Ghoul," Ed Gein ("a serial killer and body snatcher whose crimes inspired the Robert Bloch novel and subsequent Alfred Hitchcock film, 'Psycho,' as well as the comparatively down-market 'Texas Chainsaw Massacre' franchise that followed"), and the "Milwaukee Cannibal" Jeffrey Dahmer. Not to mention the "Vampire of Düsseldorf," an infamous German murderer whose mummified head came ashore in the baggage of a returning World War II soldier. (It continues to be the prize attraction in a little museum in the tourist town of Wisconsin Dells.) Arntfield presents his murder case as "perhaps the greatest story never told in American history, at least the history of American crime." Like his literary style, that claim is overblown. But the story of Christine Rothschild and Linda Tomaszewski still deserves to be told. In 1967, the girls met and became friends at the University of Wisconsin in Madison. The late '60s were a time when protest marches were replacing pep rallies and coeds no longer wanted to be called coeds. Christine had a room on the ground floor of Ann Emery Hall, a genteel women's residence with "no controlled entry, no intercom, no cameras or convex mirrors, and no sign-in book." She was unaware that a stalker was paying her nightly visits (by way of her window) until he stepped up his twisted courtship with creepy phone calls. Once she'd identified her stalker as 42-year-old Niels Bjorn Jorgensen, a third-year medical school resident, Christine told the campus police, whose advice was simply to stay alert and buy a rape whistle. Luckily, she'd also confided in Linda. Christine wound up beaten and stabbed to death, and her friend was the only person with the grit to pursue Jorgensen - across the country, for 40 years! As a grim reminder of what he'd done, for many of those years Linda also sent him a card on Valentine's Day. As with so many true-crime touches, that one's better than fiction. Marilyn STASIO has covered crime fiction for the Book Review since 1988. Her column appears twice a month.


Library Journal Review

Two events occurred in London in the early 1950s that would change the law. The first became known as the Great Smog: a fog that enveloped London in 1952 with poisonous air that seeped into every nook and cranny of the city. Even though London was renowned for its "pea-soup" fog, the Great Smog was extreme, caused by the smoke of over a million coal fires combining with thick fog that lingered for days. Killing over 12,000 people, the tragedy led to clean air legislation. The second event eventually led to the abolition of capital punishment. Dawson (journalism, Univ. of Texas at Austin) tells of how in 1950, Timothy Evans was convicted and hanged for the murder of his wife and daughter. In 1953, John Reginald Christie, Evans's neighbor and a serial murderer who took the lives of at least seven women, was finally apprehended. Christie's conviction cast doubt on Evans's execution, as many wondered if Christie was the actual killer. This doubt eventually contributed to legislation suspending the death penalty in 1965. VERDICT Tendrils of sickening fog creep everywhere in this book, and terror lurks in the shadows. Dawson skillfully weaves these two events into a substantial narrative that will appeal to all types of -readers.-Penelope J.M. Klein, Fayetteville, NY © Copyright 2017. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.


Table of Contents

Prologuep. 1
Chapter 1 Pressurep. 8
Chapter 2 Blackoutp. 24
Chapter 3 Restrainedp. 49
Chapter 4 Trappedp. 73
Chapter 5 Bodies in the Mistp. 94
Chapter 6 Postmortemp. 116
Chapter 7 Smotheredp. 144
Chapter 8 Hearth and Homep. 164
Chapter 9 Squeezedp. 183
Chapter 10 Buriedp. 206
Chapter 11 Illuminationp. 234
Chapter 12 Infamousp. 252
Chapter 13 Legacyp. 270
Epiloguep. 282
Acknowledgmentsp. 299
Notesp. 303
Indexp. 335
About the Authorp. 342