Death in the Air by Kate Winkler Dawson

In Death in the Air: The True Story of a Serial Killer, The Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City (Hachette Books, 2018), Kate Winkler Dawson draws attention to two killers that gripped the attention of London and the world in the early 1950s. In February 1952, King George VI died at the age of 56 and his 25-year-old daughter came to the throne as Queen Elizabeth II. This young, beautiful, and popular new sovereign promised excitement and celebration for a nation still reeling from the impact of the Second World War, with heavy rationing still in effect, including coal, the primary heat source for millions of Londoners. The Queen’s coronation scheduled for June 1953 would be a huge morale booster for a depressed populace, but in early 1952 the United Kingdom’s government was keenly aware of the country’s acute financial situation, leaving difficult decisions to be made that would have an impact on all subjects. Reliant on coal for centuries, in post-war UK this was still the case; however, the government of the day marketed cheap low-grade coal called ‘nutty slack’ in place of higher-grade coal which was reserved for export. This cheap alternative burned poorly and created more smoke, but it became much more accessible to the lower classes as 1952 progressed, a development that would come to have devastating consequences as the year ended. 

            In early December 1952, the city of London was held captive by the worst fog in living memory for five long days. Intense fogs had plagued London for centuries, but this one was different. Given certain weather circumstances the soot and smoke from thousands of chimneys of coal burning homes, as well as other forms of pollution, such as exhaust fumes, did not dissipate into the atmosphere, but instead was held in by the fog. Life in London literally came to a standstill as visibility became so poor people were barely able to leave their homes. The populace waited out the fog, but the consequences were deadly; it was later determined that perhaps as many as 12 thousand Londoners died from exposure to the fog, or what later became known as ‘smog.’ Amid this catastrophe a serial killer preyed upon his victims. He had killed before, burying the remains of several women in his garden, but the fog marked a turning point for John Reginald Christie. During the latter weeks of December when the fog lifted and the early months of 1953, Christie killed at least four more times, including his own wife, Ethel, who he buried under the floorboards of his front parlour at 10 Rillington Place, in London’s Notting Hill. Thus, Kate Winkler Dawson’s work not only covers the silent killer who took the lives of thousands, and the government’s response to the deadly fog, but also intertwines the narrative of serial killer John Christie, his crimes, arrest, and subsequent trial. Along the way, the text reveals the dark world of post-war London and questions the possibility that another had gone to the gallows for earlier murders which had in fact been committed by Christie. 

The back garden of 10 Rillington Place during the investigation of Christie’s crimes – Getty Images 

            An interesting aspect of the work is the author’s use of individual personal stories and testimony. In terms of the crimes committed by Christie, there existed extensive police records, newspaper reports, and other sources that could be used to tell his story. Given that Christie gave several confessions and provided extensive material for newspapers, Kate Winkler Dawson is able, in many cases, to have Christie talk about his crimes in his own words. In relation to the deadly smog, the author draws on the true accounts of several eyewitnesses who lived through the event, including a policeman and a young girl whose father was one of the fog’s victims. In many ways this humanizes the tragedy and provides a small window into life in postwar London during that deadly fog of December 1952. Highlighting these stories was particularly effective given the fact that alongside their story and that of Christie and his victims, the author traced the debates occurring in parliament regarding the fog and the response, or lack thereof at first, on the part of the government. By telling these few stories Kate Winkler Dawson brings home the gravity of the situation faced by ordinary Londoners during the fog when those in power were blind, perhaps even intentionally so, to what was happening in Great Britain’s capital city. 

Children play in front of 10 Rillington Place in 1966 – Getty Images 

Although Kate Winkler Dawson has crafted a riveting narrative and clearly done extensive research in the archives to draw from primary sources, it is lamentable that she did not provide an assessment of the work of other historians and authors who have written on the murders at 10 Rillington Place. In the final pages of the book, she does mention several other works, but does not make any judgements regarding their contributions or accuracy. Given the lack of real closure regarding the murders committed by John Reginald Christie, it would have been interesting to hear what other authors have surmised and whether the author of this study agrees. Indeed, while Kate Winkler Dawson brings both the stories of the Great Smog of 1952 and the Rillington Place murders to a close, she does not fully make a conclusion about the extent of Christie’s guilt, in a way leaving it open to the reader to decide for themselves. 

John Reginald Christie (1899-1953) – Alamy 

            This work is a must read for any lover of true crime and certainly the crimes of Christie could have been a stand-alone study, as they have many times before, but by including the fog, a much deadlier killer, Kate Winkler Dawson demonstrates that some killers can go almost undetected. The fog alone is hardly to blame for the deaths of thousands of Londoners, but certainly the blame can be laid at the feet of government officials who were disinterested in what had caused the deadly fog and were less than willing to make changes to ensure that such a tragedy would not occur again. In the modern age when pollution continues to plague communities the world over, Kate Winkler Dawson’s superb work leaves one wondering what deadly killer, perhaps as silent as polluted fog, might strike next. 

Please add Death in the Air to your Goodreads shelf.

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About the author:

Connor E. R. DeMerchant is an historian from Kingston, New Brunswick, Canada. He holds a Bachelor of Arts degree in English and History from the University of New Brunswick – Saint John and a Master’s in History from Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario. In the fall of 2021, he began a PhD in history at the University of New Brunswick – Fredericton in the field of Caribbean history. Connor enjoys researching all aspects of Britain and its global empire, including the Caribbean, with his PhD research focusing on poor white communities in St. Vincent and Barbados. When not being an academic, Connor enjoys doing genealogy, collecting vintage photos, rug-hooking, and thrifting.

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