I can’t remember what prompted the thought, but there it was: No-one’s written a thriller set in the London smog of 1952.  (I was wrong, of course; CJ Sansom and Boris Starling both got there before me.)  And it seemed to have such potential.  How could you have a chase when the fog’s so thick you can’t see your feet?  How could you work out who to chase if no-one was at their desks because the transport wasn’t running?  The worst ever smog in London’s history – a yellow miasma that stopped the city in its tracks.  And killed thousands…

Once I’d decided I was going where none (but Sansom and Starling!) had gone before, there was only one place to set it.  My family moved into Notting Dale – a rough area of North Kensington west of Ladbroke Grove – in 1974.  It may have been the era of Marc Bolan and glam rock, but much of the Dale felt the way it must have been over two decades before.  The rag-and-bone men who stabled their ponies in the arches under the Metropolitan Line near Latimer Road; the bombsites still waiting for developers to take a punt; the hostels for Serbian royalists and Lithuanian exiles, in grand buildings on Notting Hill; the condemned back-to-backs around Freston Road, given a stay of execution by the hippy squatters of the ‘Republic of Frestonia’; the worn-looking terraced houses with a bedsit in every room and a two-ring hob on every landing; the extraordinary social mix of Irish, gypsy, West Indian, East European and Spanish, with prosperous old widows and immigrant families cheek by jowl.  And hanging over it all the man who’d put Notting Dale on the map, who everyone in the Dale had a story about – serial killer Reg Christie.

I first went looking for his street, Rillington Place, when I was about nine.  It was long gone, but our old A-Z still showed it; I remember looking at the petrol station built on the other side of St Mark’s Road, and the Sixties mews put up where the street itself used to be, and feeling ripped off.  But it was Christie who brought my nascent idea about a smog thriller full circle.  Because re-reading Ludovic Kennedy’s account of the Christie case, ’10 Rillington Place’, I registered that the murderer resigned from his last job – so clearing the decks for his last murderous spree – during the smog.  A useful coincidence.  But then I remembered a chilling scene from the film of the book; Christie, played by Richard Attenborough, approaching one of his victims with some kind of gas mask in his hand.  That, I thought to myself, is the essence of my thriller.  Because what’s the smog about?  It’s about whether you can breathe…

 

Breathe by Dominick Donald will be published by Hodder in September

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