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...
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