Off the Shelf: Death in the Air

Death in the Air is the third of the books about psychopaths that I read a couple of weeks ago. This book is interesting because it draws parallels between three killers, all responsible for multiple deaths.

The least deadly of the psychopaths in this book is a nasty little man who kills women. Most of the victims are women that he knows personally, that he makes a point of getting to know personally in order to kill them. He kills less around ten women, including his wife, over a period of around 15 years, buries them in the garden, or under the living room floor, or behind the wall of his kitchen. He kills them because, the author theorizes, the first women he slept with when he was a young man made fun of his sexual inabilities publicly, and this was his revenge. That’s the author’s take – I think he killed them because he felt sorry for himself – he was a terrible hypochondriac – and he kept thinking this would make him feel better. But it didn’t, so he kept killing.

Another, much more successful killer in this book is the deadly smog that descended on London over one deadly winter, killing 12,000 people, smothering them, taxing their lungs and hearts with the toxins in coal-induced pollution. The smog is a killer, and a remarkably efficient killer, but it’s not a deliberate killer making decisions about who lives and dies; it’s inanimate, it just kills as many people as it can. You could almost say it’s not a serial killer so much as a spree killer – just take out as many people as you can in as short a time as possible. And, like many spree killers, karma comes around – in this case, many years later with the anti-pollution measures now in place that prevent it from happening again.

Behind the smog is the third killer in this book: the British government, leaders who deliberately made decisions that exacerbated the smog and prevented the smog’s victims from receiving the healthcare they needed; leaders who hid the death toll from the public to protect their decisions. The leaders who saw the problem as use of a particularly dirty (and not very efficient) variety of coal as a necessary evil because they had to ship the efficient, “cleaner” kind of coal overseas because they couldn’t afford to make it available to their citizens at prices they could afford. And opposition leaders who were unable to combat the deliberate mean-spiritedness of those in power.

This book deserves to be read for the history it tells. I had read a number of books set during this time, on the streets of London. Some of them mentioned the fog. Some of them mentioned the dirt that stained your clothes if you were out in the fog. Some of them were about the mean-spiritedness of the British government during the financially-desperate years following WWII. Some of them took place in the grimy streets of London during those years, in the neighborhoods where the victims of the fog and the serial killer lived. One even featured a killer who even stalked his victims in the fog – which, by the way, the real serial killer did not: he picked them out ahead of time, befriended them, sometimes he made them comfortable in his home for weeks or months, then killed them. But none of these other books described the numbers of people that the fog itself killed, aside from a few traffic accidents or people stumbling into the river. And that’s history worth knowing.

The book seems pretty thoroughly researched. I do wish it had been better-written. I found the sections about the serial killer trite – please, no one else write a book that takes the perspectives of the victims’ dead bodies as they lie moldering in the grave. The sections about the fog were more compelling and I cared about what happened to the people who were affected by it. The sections about the government were a little harder to get through. She provides some historical perspective on the fog and the use of the dirty coal, which laid the background for why the government might have been so complacent about the issues that year. And she opens each of chapter with a quote about the London fog… and yet, I didn’t get a sense for whether the fog had been such a deadly killer in all those years.

Great book for a long dark never-ending night.

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