Review: ‘Death in the Air’ in London
In 1952, Londoners were menaced by a serial strangler and a stagnant cloud of sooty smog.
By Howard Schneider
While reading about the profoundly drab murderer John Reginald Christie in Kate Winkler Dawson’s “Death in the Air,” I was inevitably reminded of Hannah Arendt’s resonant coinage “the banality of evil.” But when I finished reading Ms. Dawson’s narrative, I realized that her second subject, a lethal smog that suffused London at the end of 1952, touched on another of the major themes of Arendt’s “Eichmann in Jerusalem”: the capacity of bureaucrats to inflict shocking harm. Juxtaposing the stories of the fog and Christie’s crimes, Ms. Dawson maintains, offers a flavor of postwar life in Britain and illuminates “the way in which humans experience fear.”
Christie was born in the north of England in 1899. From childhood, Ms. Dawson writes, he “had always been absolutely entranced by dead bodies.” He married in 1920, deserted his wife, Ethel, after three years, and relocated to London. She rejoined him 10 years later, which proved to be the worst mistake of her hapless life. Her husband, socially awkward and unassertive to the point of anomie, still managed to get in trouble with the law and was sentenced to prison at least three times (theft, assault) by the mid-1930s. Ms. Dawson observes that “women could be so loathsome, he thought, unless he was paying them—or they were dying.” He came to prefer the latter, and during World War II (Christie, astonishingly, served as a special constable) he killed two women and buried them in his tiny backyard. In mid-December 1952, he killed Ethel. Soon after, he raped and murdered at least three other women (all of his victims were strangled to death)—even Christie wasn’t sure if he had killed more people. Among those he might have murdered were a neighbor and her young daughter. The neighbor’s husband was arrested for the crimes and hanged for murdering his child, but Ms. Dawson spends much space pondering the evidence for and against the possibility that Christie killed his neighbors, though she doesn’t reach a verdict. “There is no conclusion to this case,” she states.
In March 1953, Christie fled his home. A week later six bodies were discovered hidden within its seedy precincts. He was swiftly arrested, tried for his wife’s murder, convicted and hanged in July. To this day, his motivations seem impenetrable and will likely remain so.
The other subject of Ms. Dawson’s book is the smog that devastated London from Dec. 5 to Dec. 9, 1952. It was the result of the confluence of a particular weather pattern and ill-advised government policies. The Gulf Stream “was spewing warm, moist air toward London—misty stuff that hovered, lingered above the city, and waited, patiently, for its deadly companion,” Ms. Dawson writes. Complementing that incursion was a wind that “whirled in a clockwise motion around an eye filled with high atmospheric pressure.” In combination, the meteorological phenomena trapped particulates in the air above the city. Londoners utilized a cheap coal called nutty slack—“inefficient and much dirtier to burn”—that discharged copious amounts of soot and pernicious sulfur dioxide and nitrogen dioxide into the air. The noxious coal was widely used in London because many residents couldn’t afford higher grades of coal and the Conservative government, with the nation still reeling economically from the war, was selling much of Britain’s best coal abroad. London’s usual fog became nightmarishly tenebrous—and fatal.
The government reported at the time that 4,000 people died from respiratory ailments in those five days in December. But the real figure—which also encompasses fog-related deaths during the three subsequent months—was 12,000 (a number not publicly disclosed until 2001). Ms. Dawson cogently argues that the Conservative government’s response to the crisis was shameful: It did everything it could, seemingly, to cover up the extent of the catastrophe and avoid addressing the emergency. The author’s villain is Harold Macmillan, the minister of housing and local government (and future prime minister), but his boss, the prime minister, was Winston Churchill, whose apparent inaction makes him culpable as well. Ms. Dawson’s hero is Norman Dodds, a Labour member of Parliament who was outraged by the havoc that the smog wrought in London as well as by the Conservatives’ apathy and duplicity. He badgered the Conservatives in parliamentary debates until they grudgingly appointed a blue-ribbon committee to study the calamity and suggest ways to avoid future similar tribulations.
Ms. Dawson, a journalist and documentary producer, is an assiduous researcher. She resists, for the most part, exploiting the Grand Guignol aspects of her narrative, and her portraits of the ordinary people confronted by the depredations of the fog and Christie are moving. But the book can be frustrating. Its paired subjects are unrelated—Christie’s main killing spree didn’t begin until after the fog had ceased—and hence don’t illuminate each other. The endnotes aren’t keyed to page numbers, which is perplexing and peeving. The book’s phrasing is sometimes maladroit to the point of confusion. For instance, Ms. Dawson writes that after Harold Macmillan was wounded in World War I “he joined Churchill’s wartime administration.” Churchill didn’t become prime minister until World War II; that’s when Macmillan joined his wartime administration. Finally, there are puzzling omissions. A psychiatrist was retained by Christie’s barrister to testify that his client was insane. Why isn’t the psychiatrist’s testimony included in the book? Why isn’t the prosecutor’s cross-examination of Christie detailed?
London’s ghastly 1952 fog was a catalyst for Britain’s landmark 1956 Clean Air Act. Christie, for his part, eventually earned a niche in Madame Tussaud’s Chamber of Horrors.
—Mr. Schneider reviews books for newspapers and magazines.