Death in the Air

Cover image for Death in the Air by Kate Winkler Dawsonby Kate Winkler Dawson

ISBN 978-0-316-50686-1

The fuel was cheap, effective, and crucial—it was the only major source of domestic heating in the city at that time. But the smoke could be suffocating, and the sulphur dioxide released into the air was deadly. It triggered acid rain strong enough to bend iron, erode statues, poison land, and contaminate waterways—the pollution could destroy lungs and cause cancer. But still the coal burned.

On December 5, 1952, a thick fog descended on London. This was nothing unusual for the British capital in winter, but as the fog bank up to seven hundred feet thick settled over the city, and then refused to budge for five days, the event become something more than the average peasouper. Transportation ground to a halt, schools and businesses closed, and people huddled up at home in front of their coal fires. Britain was still recovering from the war, and high-quality coal was at a premium, so most people were burning dirty, inefficient “nutty slack,” or coal dust, which was cheaply available and encouraged by the government. As the fires burned, and more and more air pollution was trapped in the fog, Londoners began to wheeze, and then they began to die by the hundreds. By the time the fog lifted, more than four thousand would be dead. But in the months that followed the tragedy, as the official opposition pushed for an inquiry in Parliament, the headlines were grabbed instead by the lurid details of a serial killer that had been living among them. Four bodies had been found in the abandoned apartment of one John Reginald Christie of 10 Rillington Place in Notting Hill, and two more women were buried in the garden. So while Londoners cried out for justice for the murders of the six women, they were missing the fact that as many as twelve thousand of their fellow citizens had died during or after the Great Smog.

Fog is an indelible feature of British life, much tied up in the very image of London, as evidenced by the epigraphs Dawson includes at the beginning of each chapter. From Robert Louis Stevenson to T.S. Eliot, and Arthur Conan Doyle to Charles Dickens, famous writers described and referenced London’s fogs, and were even charmed by them. The French impressionist painter Claude Monet said that London would not be a beautiful city without them. But romanticized as the image has been, smoky fog made London dirty and dangerous, and the government contributed to the problem. By selling the best coal overseas to help rebuild the post-war economy, and encouraging Londoners to burn dirty nutty slack, the problem was worsened. Nor did the city’s new diesel buses, forty coal-fired power plants, or 200 steam powered locomotives help the situation. Transportation continued to try to run throughout the event, with limited success, and there was no warning system in place to tell vulnerable people to stay indoors, or discourage people from operating cars, or otherwise contributing to the disaster. Dawson clearly sketches out the tragedy, and the many ways in which the government contributed to it, and then tried to deny and cover it up. The press meanwhile, was too distracted by crime stories to pay much attention.

Death in the Air has been compared to The Devil in the White City by Erik Larson, and certainly the structure is similar. But it was quite different in one important respect; the fog has little or nothing to do with the murders, while the Chicago World’s Fair was actively used as a hunting ground and cover for the murders committed there. Christie had killed two women and buried them in his garden long before the Great Smog, and none of his victims were killed during the event. The author speculates that being cooped up for his wife for days during the fog might have nudged Christie towards killing her in mid-December 1952, but this is about the extent of the connection between the two events, as well as the fact that both left strangled victims behind. Rather, Dawson seems to be drawing on the fact that while the serial killer is still (in)famous, the Great Smog, though it killed many more people, is much less remembered, despite eventually ushering in some of the first clean air regulations.

Nevertheless, Dawson balances well between the Great Smog and its aftermath, and the murders and the subsequent trial. I was engaged by both stories, though they didn’t quite gel, continuing to move along on parallel tracks. Dawson also employs some secondary characters, including a policeman who patrolled during the smog, and a young girl whose father died during the event, forever altering the lives of her family. I particularly wanted to hear more from Rosemary Sargent about her experiences and recollections, and felt that Dawson could have used her to better effect. The tremendous number of deaths tells one part of the tale, but Rosemary helps to personalize the fall out of such an event.

Death in the Air is a story with plenty of contemporary relevance. As Dawson points out, four thousand people now die from the effects of smog every day in China. This little remembered English tragedy is being repeated on a daily basis in the fastest growing industrial nation in the world, with no sign of slowing. And the vagaries of the Christie case, including his bizarre confession to having been responsible for two murders a neighbour was convicted of, and executed for, several years earlier, raise the spectre of injustice, and the finality of the death penalty in the face of fallible human judgement. In short, while the two stories do not work perfectly together, I was fascinated by this book nevertheless.

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You might also like Tinseltown by William J. Mann

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2 thoughts on “Death in the Air

  1. Although I agree that it’s more clear that the world fair and the murders in The Devil in the White City were truly linked, for me, it was enough that the fog and the murders in Death in the Air happened at the same time. It probably helped that I found this story more interesting than that of the world fair too! I found the fog consistently interesting, while I sometimes got lost in the architectural details of the fair. I’m glad you enjoyed this, even though the two stories didn’t totally gel for you 🙂

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