Category: True Crime

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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Just Mercy

Cover image for Just Mercy by Bryan Stevenson by Bryan Stevenson

ISBN 978-0-8129-8496-5

“My work with the poor and the incarcerated has persuaded me that the opposite of poverty is not wealth; the opposite of poverty is justice.”

As a young law student, Bryan Stevenson was somewhat adrift at Harvard Law School, unsure of his direction or his future. He wanted to do something that would help people, but he was having trouble connecting his theoretical education with meaningful action. Then, an internship at the Southern Prisoner’s Defence Committee led to work helping inmates on death row in the Deep South. Most of these prisoners were indigent, and could not afford legal counsel to help review or appeal their cases. The experience made a profound impression, and led him to found the Equal Justice Initiative in Alabama in 1994. Stevenson would go on to appeal countless death sentences, and challenge the practice of sentencing minors to life without parole. Just Mercy recounts his experiences representing people who have been written off by society.

The main case threaded through Just Mercy is that of Walter McMillian, who was convicted in 1988 of the 1986 murder of Ronda Morrison, and sentenced to death in Alabama. Stevenson’s association with the case began with a call from the original trial judge, who got wind that Stevenson had been looking into McMillian, and called to try to scare him off of representing him. Stevenson took the case anyway, and the result is an investigation that seems like something out of a television crime drama. The tenuousness of the evidence on which McMillian was convicted is scarcely believable, the racism poorly concealed, and the unwillingness to admit an error simply stunning.

Just Mercy draws interesting parallels to one of American’s most beloved classic novels, To Kill a Mockingbird. McMillian was from Monroeville, Alabama, home to author Harper Lee. The town continued to publicize and celebrate the work, even as a wrongful conviction took place in their midst. While To Kill a Mockingbird lionizes Atticus Finch for his defence of Tom Robinson, Stevenson encountered repeated obstruction from the community, and even received death and bomb threats for his defence of McMillian. The irony is not lost on Stevenson, who also notes the unhappy ending for the accused in Lee’s novel.

Walter McMillian in the main thread running through the book, appearing in every second chapter, but his is not the only story. In the chapters between, Stevenson highlights other types of abuses that lead him to do this work, such as life without parole sentences for children, the incarceration of the mentally ill, and the prosecution of women who have suffered still births. While this results in a book that is less focused on a particular case, it ultimately proves to be a strength. These chapters serve to show that Walter McMillian is not isolated or even a particularly extreme case, and give a better idea of the breadth of the problem. The alternating chapters even serve to provide some sense of suspense in McMillian’s case, despite the fact that the outcome was widely publicized and is therefore probably generally known to readers.

Beyond specific cases, Just Mercy also serves to highlight the how short legal services are for the poor, and the lack of re-entry programs for exonerated prisoners. Every time Stevenson took on a new case, other prisoners would hear about his work and seek his help, creating an impossible case load. Once, in a case where Stevenson was representing a veteran who suffered from PTSD, and injured two children by setting off a bomb, the victims’ families asked for Stevenson’s assistance seeking financial aid they had been promised but never received.  They sought his help even though he was representing the man who had caused the injuries in the first place.

Even when prisoners get help and are able to win their release, they face problems reintegrating into society. Someone who is convicted of murder and then later found to be innocent remains ineligible for services that exclude people who have been convicted of felonies. Originally setting out to provide legal help, Stevenson subsequently found himself also doing social work, providing assistance and support to those he had helped set free. Thus Stevenson paints a broad portrait of a problem that goes beyond any one wrongfully convicted prisoner, and serves to highlight a broken system in desperate need of reform.


Cover image for The New Jim Crow by Michelle AlexanderYou might also like The New Jim Crow by Michelle Alexander

While the City Slept

Cover image for While the City Slept by Eli Sanders

ISBN 9780670015719

“They had feared him, and it was fear of a certain kind. Not the primal, salable fear of violence, not fright of the unexpected arriving with sudden brutality from an unknowable beyond. Theirs was fear of a known man and an outcome not yet known but likely to be grim. Fear of a person who, regrettably, had lived and delivered pain already, a man intelligent enough to impress yet with seemingly no handle on where his disjointed thoughts, speech, and actions might be headed.”

In the early hours of July 19, 2009, a man entered the home of Teresa Butz, and her partner Jennifer Hopper in Seattle’s South Park neighbourhood. He raped both women, and slashed and stabbed them with a knife. Eventually they were able to escape screaming into the street, where neighbours came to their aid, and the police were called. Their assailant fled into the night while Teresa Butz lay dying on the pavement of South Rose Street, and her fiancée was transported to Harborview Medical Center. A four day man hunt led to the arrest of Isaiah Kalebu, a mentally ill man who had been living on the streets since his family became too afraid to continue to care for him. While the City Slept recounts Jennifer and Teresa’s love story, Isaiah Kalebu’s descent into madness, and the terrible violence with which their paths crossed.

Eli Sanders—who received the Pulitzer Prize for Feature Writing for his coverage of the South Park attacks in Seattle’s weekly newspaper, The Stranger—begins by characterizing the South Park neighbourhood in which Jennifer and Teresa lived. It was blue collar and ethnically diverse, as well as friendly and supportive. When glass was heard breaking, and there were screams in the street, several neighbours rushed to their aid, and still more called for emergency services. From this crucial moment, Sanders circles back to examine the childhoods of the two women, as well as how they met and fell in love.

Jennifer and Teresa were only two months from their wedding day when Teresa was killed. Though same sex marriage would not be legal in Washington State for another three years, the two women were determined to seize their happy ending with a commitment ceremony. Teresa came from a large and loving, but religious family, which had struggled with her sexual orientation. At the time of the attacks, Teresa was not sure if her parents would be coming to her wedding. Jennifer’s single mother became addicted to prescription drugs for her back pain, and as result Jennifer was largely raised by her grandmother, who did not accept that she was a lesbian. Friends and family on both sides, as well as Jennifer herself, cooperated with Sanders for this book.

After carefully chronicling Jennifer and Teresa’s lives, meeting, and romance, Sanders turns to Isaiah Kalebu, the man accused of raping them and murdering Teresa. His story is an education in the results of deinstitutionalization, the conditions for involuntary commitment, and mental competency to stand trial. Kalebu was raised in an abusive home, where his parents were constantly fighting with one another. When he was a teenager, they would go through a messy and prolonged divorce. Although his teachers often noted his behavioural problems, his parents refused to accept these observations, or chose to ignore them. Because he was smart and made good grades, they were satisfied that he was doing well at school. By the time of the attacks, Kalebu would be living on the streets because he had alienated his relatives. His aunt and her partner died in a fire he was suspected of setting, and his mother and sister took out restraining orders against him because they were frightening by his extreme reactions to their efforts to have him committed. It is the story of one missed opportunity after another, of a young man who slipped repeatedly through the cracks in the system, despite his family’s best efforts to get him the help he so desperately needed. His family agreed to cooperate with Sanders for this book, but after a few initial emails, Kalebu himself ceased communicating.

Sanders does not recount the attack itself until it comes to Jennifer’s testimony at trial. There, he gives enough of her account to illustrate exactly how brutal and terrifying the events were, but not so much as to be prurient or salacious, though it is a delicate balance. What shines through is Jennifer’s grace and courage under pressure, as well as her path towards forgiveness and healing. One lawyer would describe her time on the stand as the best witness testimony he had ever seen. After only two days of deliberation, the jury would convict Kalebu of Butz’s murder, the attempted murder of Jennifer Hopper, as well as rape and burglary. The sentence was life without parole.

While the City Slept is a love story, a tragedy, and a gruesome murder mystery. But it is harrowing not merely because of the violence it recounts, but because of the way it methodically exposes the flaws and failures of both the mental health and criminal justice systems in Washington State.

Cover image for Tinseltown by William J. Mann You might also like Tinseltown by William J. Mann


Cover image for Tinseltown by William J. Mannby William J. Mann

ISBN 9780062242167

This is the story of a murder, of a single soft-nosed bullet that traveled upwards through a man’s rib cage, piercing his lung and lodging in his neck after being fired by an unknown assailant ninety-two years ago on a cold Los Angeles night.

On the morning of February 2, 1922, film director William Desmond Taylor was found murdered in his Hollywood hills bungalow. The previous night, he had entertained his long-time friend, silent film star Mabel Normand. Shortly after Mabel departed, Taylor’s neighbours heard a sound that may have been a gun shot, and witnessed a man leaving his house. They did not investigate, and Taylor’s body was not found until the next morning, when his valet Henry Peavey arrived for work. In the time before the death was declared a murder, Paramount studio representative Charles Eyton took the opportunity to remove many of Taylor’s papers from the house. Subsequent mishandling of evidence by the district attorney further complicated the investigation, and the murder was never solved. This cold case is delved into by William J. Mann, the biographer of other Hollywood legends including Katharine Hepburn, and a historian whose biography of actor William Haines won the Lambda Literary Award in 1999. Mann examines the evidence, and puts forward his own candidate for the murder of William Desmond Taylor, while also rendering a perceptive portrait of 1920s Hollywood.

After describing the discovery of the body, Mann goes back in time several years and presents the significant events leading up to the murder. Even if you know nothing about the silent film era, Tinseltown is an accessible and engaging read, as Mann paints a fascinating picture of the rise of studio system in order to contextualize the murder mystery. Mann slowly lays out the players, assembles the evidence, and unspools the details, tantalizing the reader with secrets, and amping up the suspense and foreshadowing as the date of Taylor’s death draws near. 1920s Hollywood was erupting with scandals, from the suicide of actress Olive Thomas, to the multiple trials of comedian Roscoe “Fatty” Arbuckle for rape and manslaughter. Taylor’s friend, Mabel Normand, who was with him the night of the murder, was rumoured to be a drug addict. Taylor, a respected and seemingly upright citizen who was a spokesperson for defending films from censorship, turned out to have more secrets than anyone would have suspected.

More than just following the suspects and witnesses involves with Taylor’s murder, Mann portrays the tense public atmosphere into which the scandal of Taylor’s murder erupted. Key to this portrait is the head of the Famous Players-Lasky theatre chain, Adolph Zukor, who also controlled Paramount studios, which produced the films screened in his theatres. Zukor was a shrewd businessman who had built an empire out of nothing after coming to America from Hungary as a seventeen-year-old orphan. By 1920, film was the fourth largest industry in America, and the power and influence of the pictures was causing heart palpitations among those who were concerned about the morality of the stories and the lives of the actors playing them out on screen.  Each new scandal in the press increased the calls for censorship, as the same church ladies who had advocated for Prohibition a few years before turned their attention to arranging boycotts of the films of scandal-plagued actors. Zukor’s fears were two-fold: censorship of films, and regulation of the industry that would break up his vertically integrated business model. Tinseltown is an education in Old Hollywood politics, as Zukor maneuvers to try avoid an anti-trust lawsuit, and manage the scandals that were driving the demand for censorship.

Like most true crime writers, Mann believes he has discovered the correct solution, even though he is writing about a murder that is nearing its centennial. Admittedly, his solution hinges on an uncorroborated death bed confession that relies on one man’s word about what he heard. But from that word, Mann extrapolates an intriguing theory that jibes with both the physical and circumstantial evidence in ways the popular suspects of the day never did. Ultimately, it is too late to know for sure, but Mann builds a plausible case while also entertaining and educating. You could take the question of whodunit out it entirely, and still have a riveting portrait of silent film era Hollywood.


Challenge Badge for the 2014 Eclectic Reader Challenge hosted by Book'd OutThis title fulfills the True Crime requirement for my participation in the 2014 Eclectic Reader Challenge hosted by Book’d Out.