Author Kate Dawson on Her Debut Book ‘Death in the Air’

Journalism professor Kate Dawson’s debut book tells the true story of how 12,000 people in post-World War II London died one winter.

In 1952 London, two killers roamed the city’s streets. One was an odd but well-respected man,  named John Reginald Christie who lived in a small, run-down apartment with his wife. But the unsuspecting Christie had a secret: He was strangling women and hiding their bodies in his backyard. And as he prepared to take his next victim, London was overcome with something even more disastrous—a smog, created by an anticyclone and air pollutants like coal, that would take the lives of 12,000 people.

In Death in the Air, author Kate Dawson, a UT journalism professor and former news producer, combines her interest in true crime, years of research, and interviews with Londoners who lived through that fateful  winter to tell two stories that left London changed forever. The Alcalde spoke with Dawson about her debut book.

What is it about true crime that fascinates you?

I see true crime as an escape the way a sci-fi fan might see a Star Trek movie. To me, it’s hard to believe people behave the way they do but I’m interested in that. And I agree with my mother that true crime helps you prepare as a citizen—it really shows what people are capable of.

Why did you tell these stories together?

I read constantly on the internet and I happened to run across the London smog. As soon as I saw the pictures I realized this could be a powerful story. I wanted to know how many people died so I started looking at The New York Times online archives. I started seeing headlines with “murder house; body found; skeleton in the garden,” and stopped reading about the smog and started reading about John Christie. Here was this  juxtaposition between two killers: one who killed eight victims and one who killed 12,000. The stories benefited from being told next to the other as they strangle the city—the air choking people to death and Christie literally strangling the victims.

How do you intertwine Christie and the Great Smog in the book?

Polluted air was trapped over London for five days, creating these fumes. Within the book, I have these characters who were real people—some are still alive, some of them have died. I document a doctor who was in the hospital as smog victims were coming in. There’s a police officer who’s trying to protect the city from criminals who, because of the smog, weren’t able to see him and he couldn’t see them. There’s a 13-year-old girl who’s now a 70-year-old grandma who goes out in the smog to get her father medication. Then I have this serial killer who’s also in the fog. He’s stuck with his wife for several days and then a few days after the fog, he kills her and puts her body under the floorboards. This is a braided narrative. You have these two stories that run parallel to each other and collide in Parliament the next summer.

What changes were made in Parliament in the aftermath of the smog and Christie’s execution?

A couple had moved into Christie’s complex with their little girl, this was the Evans family. One day, the wife and the little girl go missing—Christie had killed them. The husband, Timothy Evans, was accused and executed for killing the wife and daughter because no one believes John Christie, an “upstanding” citizen, had done it. This becomes the hallmark for wrongful conviction and execution. It’s why the death penalty was abolished in Great Britain. The bigger impact is that Parliament really puts up that first legislation to clean up air, even before the U.S. The 1956 Clean Air Act put together a blueprint for other countries to follow.

In your research, what did you uncover that’s never really been known before?

Pretty much most of it. I worked on this for several years. I’d spend 10 to 13 hours a day frantically taking pictures of declassified files that had notes and memos from government departments. I discovered that, although 12,000 people died from the smog, the government claimed only 4,000 did. They blamed the other 8,000 deaths on a fabricated flu. I’ve proven here that it was fake.

In what ways does the book connect with today?

It’s a story about pollution and what happens when we prioritize money and finance over health. The poor conditions—the five-day fog, coal, or the same poorly made houses—might not be exactly the same but but they are present in this country. I would hope this is one of those examples of the ultimate cautionary tale of why protecting the environment matters.

 
 
 

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