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
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 smog—so 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.
"Death in the Air by Kate Winkler Dawson is a fascinating, beautifully researched, and compulsively readable book, which tells the entwined stories of the Great London Smog of 1952 and a serial killer, John Reginald Christie, who exploited the fog as a cloak for murder. This is a portrait of London at one of its darkest and most desperate times. Not since The Devil in the White City has a book told such a harrowing tale."Douglas Preston, #1 New York Times bestselling author of The Monster of Florence and The Lost City of the Monkey God
"A London peasouper hangs over the city as a serial killer stalks its streets! This is a true tale of criminal violence against the backdrop of one of the worst environmental disasters of all time, one that led to the death of 12,000
people. It is a narrative that has relevance to the world's pollution problems of today and is also an engrossing read."Christine L. Corton, author of London Fog: The Biography
"I was seven,
and living in London, when these two dreadful and murderous events uncoiled,
and I--asthmatic as a result--remember them still. It seems to me that only an outsider, a non-Londoner, could possibly bring them so vividly,
so excruciatingly and so unflinchingly back to life. Kate Winkler Dawson has done the history of my city a great service, and she is to be commended for telling a terrible tale memorably and brilliantly."Simon Winchester, New York Times bestselling author of The Professor and the Madman
"Dawson deftly weaves the tales together in an engrossing narrative that reads like a thriller.... readers will remain hooked on this compelling story and will eagerly await Dawson's next book."Kirkus
"A deranged maniac plays
Fleet Street's reporters like a fiddle at the same time that an industrial-age climate disaster explodes into a full-blown humanitarian crisis. Richly detailed and shrewdly told, Kate Winkler Dawson's Death in the Air is as suspenseful as it is chillingly relevant."Robert Kolker, New York Times bestselling author of Lost Girls
"Just when you think true crime can't get more interesting, here comes Kate Dawson with her imaginatively conceived and meticulously researched tale about Reg Christie, the fastidious,
soft-voiced London clerk who embarks on a vicious killing spree in 1952 just as a deadly fog descends on London. But Death in the Air is hardly another study of a depraved serial killer. It's also a riveting history of London in the years after World
War II--a city beset by political cover ups and misguided police investigations.
Dawson's ability to weave together so many separate strands of one story is simply magnificent."Skip Hollandsworth, author of The Midnight Assassin: The Hunt for America's First Serial Killer
"Dawson has reached deep into the past and pulled forth a spellbinding, darkly gothic tale of two serial killers--only one of which was human. Death in the Air surprised me, entranced me,
and changed the way I see one of the most urgent issues facing the world today."Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, author of The Fact of a Body
"What's great about Death in the Air is not just its stunning premise, but also its deep reach into the life of London in the mid-twentieth century. It's a wonderful read. Welcome to the metaphysics of fog."S. C. Gwynne, New York Times bestselling author of Empire of the Summer Moon and Rebel Yell
"Evocative . . .
vividly atmospheric . . . The narratives add up to a grim, Dickensian portrait of postwar London: broke, grimy, dejected, deranged around the edges, and gasping for breath."Publishers Weekly
"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."Library Journal (starred 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. 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."Booklist
"Kate Winkler Dawson's Death in the Air: The True Story of a
Serial Killer, The Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City is a stellar examination of a turbulent time in the city's history. . . . Dawson's background in documentaries and journalism makes this journey more than just a retelling of the facts. She tracked down people who lived it, and now readers will vividly experience that period as well." Associated Press
"Deeply researched and densely atmospheric."New York Times Book Review
"For five days in December of that year, London was blanketed by a yellow toxic vapor that smothered its inhabitants. Journalist Kate Winkler Dawson has written an intriguing book about this silent disaster, which was borne out of a perfect storm of freak weather patterns and environmental ignorance. . . . The lessons for the present, Dawson suggests, are as clear as the air in front of our eyes."Maureen Corrigan, "Fresh Air"
"What's scarier: A murderous madman
(now known to be John Reginald Christie) or an environmental disaster?" Los Angeles Times
"In 1952, post-World War II London was battling more than reconstruction, and Kate Winkler Dawson's Death in the Air: The True
Story of a Serial Killer, The Great London Smog, and the Strangling of a City
is a stellar examination of a turbulent time in the city's history. . . .
Dawson's background in documentaries and journalism makes this journey more than just a retelling of the facts. She tracked down people who lived it, and now readers will vividly experience that period as well."Associated Press
"Ms. Dawson, a journalist and documentary producer, is an assiduous researcher...her portraits of the ordinary people confronted by the depredations of the fog and Christie are moving.
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."Wall Street Journal