Friday, January 5, 2018

Nonfiction Review: 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
Kate Winkler Dawson
Published October 17, 2017
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 truecrime 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. - from Goodreads
When I was watching season 1 of The Crown on Netflix, a whole episode was devoted to the deadly smog that covered London in December 1952.  It piqued my interest, and I knew I had to read this book.  In Death in the Air, Dawson weaves two stories together: how the smog affected the city and how a serial killer became a media sensation in the months following the dissipation of the smog.

Dawson starts the book by talking about some of the social, political, and meteorological factors that contributed to the smog.  London was still recovering from World War II and cheap, dirty coal was in abundance.  Fog wasn't an uncommon occurrence in London, but this smog was much worse than previous fogs, filled with dangerous chemicals and held in place for days.  The weather was also colder than normal, which meant people were burning more coal, contributing further to the deadly conditions.

Dawson mainly focuses on an overall picture of the smog and its effects, but she chooses some individuals to focus on, which gave a more personal feel to the story: a police officer, a young girl who loses her father, and a politician who is outraged after the smog finally lifts.  Dawson also provides an overview of the government's reaction (or lack thereof) to the smog.  It was pretty appalling that the deadly phenomenon wasn't at the top of their list, considering literally thousands of people died during and in the months following the smog.  Unfortunately, the government's slow reaction wasn't surprising to me.

The second part of the book focuses on serial killer John Reginald Christie, a creepy and depraved man who was physically (and probably mentally) ill.  He murdered his wife and hid the bodies of several other victims on his property.  The tie between the smog and Christie was a bit tenuous at times, as Christie didn't commit the murders during the fog, but the way his trial dominated the media afterwards was fascinating.  His conviction also changed the course of the death penalty in England.  The timeline of Christie's story was sometimes confusing, flashing back to murders and other events that happening before the smog.

I enjoyed Dawson's writing style; it was straightforward and easy to read, reminiscent of nonfiction author Erik Larson (if you've read The Devil in the White City, you'll probably find a lot of similarities). 

4 stars


  1. I know nothing of these events, so your review has me curious. I just wish that it was tighter in the plot and the writing, still I am going to add it to my list.

  2. I'm all excited now because I, of course, love nonfiction and this is one I would probably highly enjoy. Gonna add it to my wishlist right now. Thanks for sharing this review! :D

  3. Oh my gosh, I need to get my hands on this one! I heard someone on one of the reading podcasts I listen to raving about it! Glad you enjoyed as well! Great review!

  4. I don't read much nonfiction but this does sound fascinating. I clearly need to brush up on my post WWII history too because I didn't know anything about either event this book focuses on.

    1. I only knew about the smog crisis because of The Crown!

  5. The smog and the serial killings are both events I have never heard of, but I will probably end up researching now thanks to you. They are both intriguing in a macabre way.

    Thanks for sharing.

  6. Sounds like a fascinating book! I rarely read nonfiction outside of my job (creating indexes for forthcoming books), but this one is tempting me.

  7. This reminded me very much of The Devil in the White City too! This was one of my favorite reads of the last year, so it makes me happy to see that you enjoyed it too :)

  8. Nice review! I usually don't pick up nonfiction, but this one sounds interesting!


I'm so glad you stopped by, and I would love to hear your thoughts! Comments are always greatly appreciated!