KILLERS in the mist

What’s the dif­fer­ence be­tween Lon­don’s deadly post-war smogs and John Christie, the mur­der­ous mon­ster of Rilling­ton Place? Not much, in­sists this Amer­i­can au­thor, in her valiant but bizarre at­tempt to ind links be­tween the cap­i­tal’s...

The Mail on Sunday - Event - - BOOKS - CRAIG BROWN SO­CIAL HIS­TORY

My one and only en­counter with the se­rial killer Regi­nald Christie was as a child.

He was stand­ing in his shirt­sleeves in the kitchen of his ground­floor flat at 10 Rilling­ton Place, brush­ing strips of wall­pa­per with glue, ready to hang them across the door to an al­cove where the corpses of three of his vic­tims lay rot­ting.

I was, of course, in the Cham­ber of Hor­rors at Madame Tus­sauds. Regi­nald Christie was pre­par­ing his wall­pa­per just a few yards from Dr Crip­pen, who stood there in the dock, wait­ing for his death sen­tence to be passed.

Later, the Christie exhibit was up­dated, and mech­a­nised. Now you could hear the voice of the judge sen­tenc­ing him to death, and then the trap door would open and Christie would be hanged, over and over and over again.

But no more: last year, Madame Tus­sauds closed down its Cham­ber of Hor­rors, ap­par­ently re­spond­ing to the num­ber of com­plaints it had re­ceived from fam­i­lies with young chil­dren.

Nev­er­the­less, Christie lives on. Last year, Tim Roth gave us a mar­vel­lously creepy por­trayal of him in the BBC se­ries Rilling­ton

Place. And now an Amer­i­can jour­nal­ist, Kate Win­kler Daw­son, has writ­ten a long book about him that links his crimes, some­what ten­u­ously, with the deathly Lon­don smog of 1952. She al­lots roughly equal space to Christie and the smog. ‘This is the par­al­lel story of two killers. As dif­fer­ent as these mur­der­ers were, their sim­i­lar­i­ties were strik­ing,’ she ar­gues. ‘Both stran­gled their vic­tims. Both eluded sus­pi­cion. And both nearly escaped jus­tice.’

Well, um, yes; but then again, no. It seems to me that the dif­fer­ences were rather more strik­ing than the sim­i­lar­i­ties, given that one was a mid­dle-aged man and the other was pol­luted air. So it is a bit like writ­ing a book about chalk and cheese, and kick­ing it off by say­ing, ‘This is a par­al­lel story of two pop­u­lar items of­ten to be found in the same build­ing. As dif­fer­ent as these two items are, their sim­i­lar­i­ties are strik­ing. Both are house­hold ob­jects. Both come in handy. And both can be fit­ted into a small box.’

The trou­ble with Death In The Air is that, hav­ing de­cided to weld Christie and smog forcibly to­gether, Daw­son has to keep jus­ti­fy­ing that de­ci­sion. This gives rise to any num­ber of awk­ward sen­tences, such as: ‘But in early De­cem­ber of 1952, as the Lon­don air thick­ened and smoth­ered the city, an­other killer – de­vi­ous, sick and un­re­pen­tant – eyed his next vic­tim.’

So the book be­comes some­thing of a jerky three-legged race, each sub­ject hold­ing back the other as the two of them strug­gle to progress at roughly the same rate to the fin­ish­ing post. Those who are fas­ci­nated by the nox­ious pol­lu­tants that go into the mak­ing of a smog may be ir­ri­tated to have their pre­ferred nar­ra­tive con­stantly in­ter­rupted with the tale of a se­rial killer, and vice versa.

Yet the two strands are both, in­di­vid­u­ally, of great in­ter­est. Af­ter the Sec­ond World War, the cash-strapped gov­ern­ment was de­ter­mined to save money by ex­port­ing its best coal and pro­vid­ing the Bri­tish peo­ple with dirt­ier, less ef­fi­cient coal, called ‘nutty slack’, at a much cheaper price.

In the win­ter of 1952, this de­ci­sion had fa­tal con­se­quences. The car­bon diox­ide, hy­drochlo­ric acid and sul­phur diox­ide from the nutty slack com­bined with the gulf stream, send­ing warm, moist air over the cap­i­tal to kill an es­ti­mated 12,000 Lon­don­ers. It thereby cre­ated what Win­kler de­scribes as ‘the worst health cri­sis to at­tack Lon­don in nearly 100 years’, though the Span­ish flu epi­demic of 1918 – which killed a quar­ter of a mil­lion Bri­tons – was surely much worse.

The Con­ser­va­tive gov­ern­ment wanted to cover up the con­nec­tion be­tween the dodgy coal and the fa­tal­i­ties, while a dogged Labour MP, Nor­man Dodds, was de­ter­mined to ex­pose it. In suit­ably hammy Hol­ly­wood style, Daw­son presents this as a life-and-death strug­gle be­tween the plucky work­ing-class truthteller, Dodds, and the pompous, un­car­ing, up­per-class Min­is­ter (Harold Macmil­lan).

Like many a thriller writer, Daw­son piles on the ex­tra­ne­ous de­tail, pos­si­bly to dis­play the ex­tent of her re­search. ‘That night, the 49-year-old Mem­ber of Par­lia­ment (MP) shifted in his seat, a cramped two-foot area on the iconic green benches cov­ered in Moroc­can leather,’ she writes. Mean­while, we hear that, in ‘Fleet Street in Cen­tral Lon­don, ed­i­tors sport­ing bow ties, grip­ping a cig­a­rette in one hand and a broad­sheet in the other, barked or­ders to cub re­porters’. The only sur­prise is that they aren’t all shout­ing ‘Hold the front page!’ be­fore break­ing into a spir­ited ren­di­tion of Any Old Iron.

For all her re­search into both Christie and the smog, Daw­son, an Amer­i­can who lives and works in Texas, some­times gets it very

Death In The Air: The True Story Of A Se­rial Killer Kate Win­kler Daw­son Ha­chette £20

wrong. She seems to think, for in­stance, that Harold Macmil­lan went straight from the First World War into the Sec­ond World War, with no gap in be­tween. So she tells us that at the Bat­tle of the Somme, ‘he was shot, and lay in a trench for ten hours try­ing to avoid Ger­man de­tec­tion. When he re­turned home, he joined Churchill’s wartime ad­min­is­tra­tion’. Yet 24 years sep­a­rated these two events. She also seems to think that Macmil­lan was en­tirely home-schooled, when in fact he was a pupil at both Sum­mer Fields and Eton.

She seems to be on more solid ground with the grim story of Regi­nald Christie. The for­mer wartime spe­cial con­sta­ble, non­de­script and soft-spo­ken, re­mains a hor­ri­bly me­nac­ing char­ac­ter, straight out of a story by Ruth Ren­dell or Pa­trick Hamil­ton.

Be­fore the Sec­ond World War had ended, he had al­ready mur­dered two women and buried them in his back gar­den. While gar­den­ing one day, he ac­ci­den­tally broke the skull off the first and tossed it into a dust­bin. He used the thigh-bone of the other to prop up a gar­den fence.

Af­ter the war, a young cou­ple called Tim­o­thy and Beryl Evans moved into a flat up­stairs. Beryl dis­ap­peared, and so did their lit­tle girl. The ed­u­ca­tion­ally sub­nor­mal Evans con­fessed to the mur­der of his wife, then changed his mind, say­ing that he had only con­fessed so as to pro­tect Christie, who had ac­ci­den­tally killed her while car­ry­ing out an abor­tion. Af­ter the corpses were found, he changed his mind again, say­ing that he stran­gled his wife in a fit of tem­per, and then stran­gled their baby – ‘I just couldn’t put up with the cry­ing’. In court he went back to blam­ing Christie, but the jury was im­pressed by Christie’s calm, re­spon­si­ble demeanour and took only 40 min­utes to find Evans guilty. His last words be­fore be­ing hanged were: ‘I didn’t do it. Christie done it.’

‘What a wicked man he is,’ mur­mured Christie, and his wife Ethel agreed. ‘Don’t you dare call my hus­band a mur­derer,’ she snapped at Evans’s mother on the court­room steps. ‘He’s a good man.’ But she spoke too soon. Ethel Christie was shortly to be­come yet an­other of his vic­tims. He hid her body un­der the floor­boards. When a po­lice­man hap­pened to visit the flat, the stench was un­avoid­able. ‘What a rot­ten stink that is,’ said the po­lice­man. ‘Well, it’s all these coloured peo­ple and their strange cook­ing,’ ex­plained Christie. ‘It makes a ter­ri­ble smell.’ He took to spray­ing Jeyes Fluid every­where, though with­out much suc­cess.

Af­ter he left 10 Rilling­ton Place, the new ten­ant no­ticed a wall giv­ing out a hol­low sound and dis­cov­ered the corpses of three women. Be­fore his ar­rest near Put­ney Bridge, Christie was on the run for four days, sleep­ing rough in Lon­don.

‘A se­rial killer on the run now over­shad­owed a mass mur­derer that had slaugh­tered thou­sands,’ writes Daw­son, per­sist­ing in her valiant strug­gle to keep her two dis­parate strands to­gether.

Top: a bus is guided by a flam­ing torch. Above: Christie ar­rives at court. Right: cov­er­age of the case

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