Death in the Air

Death in the Air

The True Story of A Serial Killer, the Great London Smog, and the Strangling of A City

Book - 2017
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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
Publisher: New York, NY : Hachette Books, 2017
Edition: First edition
ISBN: 9780316506861
Characteristics: viii, 341 pages, 8 unnumbered pages of plates : illustrations, maps ; 24 cm


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Jul 13, 2018

The other day I read that for the first time in ages, London’s astronomical observatory was able to be used for actual observation. I was very happy to heat about this success, and the more so because I have read this book and understand what a journey it has been.

Once upon a time, London’s air was worse than the legendary Los Angeles smog. In Death in the Air, Kate Winkler Dawson tells two seemingly unconnected stories in parallel: a serial killer who preys on young women and girls in London after World War II, and the far more widespread depredations of the coal-fueled toxic air in one of the world’s biggest and - at least on the surface - most prosperous city.

The serial killer lived in a nondescript cul-de-sac in a lower-class area of London. He murdered his upstairs neighbors, prostitutes he picked up in bars, and eventually his own wife. John Reginald Christie buried his victims in his backyard, even putting some in the laundry house outside. Amazingly, his house was searched any number of times. Dawson does a great job of drawing out how the police miss the clues and how this relates to the more prolific killer, the smog.

Running in parallel to the story of Christie we find the story of a girl living in a similar house in a similar neighborhood as her already-ill father succumbs to the particulates and toxic chemicals in the air. Dawson explains how and why the air condition got to the point it reached during that time, and how Britain’s government grappled - or didn’t - with possible solutions.

There is no such thing as clean coal. There never has been. But some coal is dirtier than others, and Death In the Air graphically explores what happens when the dirtier kind is all that’s available. Shops were burglarized mere feet from Bobbies trying to guard them, vehicle headlights were useless, and that’s before the effects on the human body and mind are taken into account. (And the bodies of nonhuman animals as well - she also talks about the fate of cattle brought into London for a show.) From the highest halls of government to the backwash of the old city, we find out the horrors that can happen when pollution begins to get out of hand. We also find out about a few similar events in the United States.

I found this to be a chilling precautionary tale. Honestly, the true crime got me into this book, but while the story of the serial killer is intriguing it is not as meaningful to me as the sadness of a little girl losing her father to a murdering force that blocked all else from visibility. It doesn’t take much to extrapolate the information we’re given to our own time, and I highly recommend this book. Read it and contact your government officials, no matter where you are. We could be right back where we were before we know it.

Mar 07, 2018

This remarkably boring book is mostly about a particularly bad London fog in 1952. The author somehow thought it would be a good idea to try to weave in the story of the English serial killer Christie, who was operating in London during this time, though for a period of YEARS, not just during the fog. The book might be of interest to a meteorologist, or a scientist, but her endless descriptions of dirt and air pollution are unlikely to be interesting to the general reader. This is probably the reason that the story of the serial killer is clumsily interjected and in fact probably that was the only reason this book got published. But HIS story is not really very interesting either, especially because the author seems obsessed with describing all of his medical problems. By the time I was about a fifth of the way through this book, and had read the endless descriptions of dirt, greasy fog, people coughing up yellow phlegm and collapsing on the street, and Christie's symptoms of colitis, I felt sick and depressed and stopped reading.

Dec 03, 2017

I found it an interesting read. The WSJ review points out the previous reviewers comments, however I think it's a worthwhile read if one can navigate through those particular shortcomings. The historical value is good, illuminating how slow Britain was to respond to the imminent hazards of air quality & health hazards. Due to the use of cheap coal 'nutty slack' in such a densely packed city over decades of use met up with changing air currents was the perfect storm, thousands died of respiratory ailments. 1953 - was this the early warning how environmental pollution affects life?

I like the manner in which she ties in the murders, how the death penalty that was so quickly determined & often on innocent people. The death penalty was abolished in 1965 - by hanging no less - is an interesting point. Looking at prison sentencing in the UK compared to the US has fascinated me, then I realised the colossal difference in size & population.

Nov 25, 2017

The writer seems to want to make this a poetic book. Consequently, it seemed a little redundant and slow and at points, perplexing. Not as interesting or engaging as I thought it would be.


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