The Blurb On The Back:
It is 1941. While the ‘war of chaos’ rages in the skies above London, an unending fight against violence, murder and the criminal underworld continues on the streets below.
One ordinary day, in an ordinary courtroom, forensic pathologist Dr Keith Simpson asks a keen young journalist to be his secretary. Although the ‘horrors of secretarial work’ don’t appeal to Molly Lefurbure, she’s intrigued to know exactly what goes on behind a mortuary door.
Capable and curious, ‘Miss Molly’ quickly becomes indispensable to Dr Simpson as he meticulously pursues the truth. Accompanying him from sombre morgues to London’s most gruesome crime scenes, Molly observes and assists as he uncovers the dark secrets that all murder victims keep.
With a sharp sense of humour and a rebellious spirit, Molly tells her own remarkable true story here with warmth and wit, painting a vivid portrait of wartime London.
The Review (Cut For Spoilers):
Molly Lefebure was a writer and Fellow of the Royal Society of Literature. This fascinating memoir (first published in 1954) of her time working as secretary to the acclaimed forensic pathologist Dr Keith Simpson between 1941 and 1945 gives you a real feel for crime detection during this time and also of what life in the Blitz was like although it is a book of its time so some of the off-hand comments about race, disability and gender drew a wince.
I’m going to start by stressing that I thought this was a really smoothly written memoir – Lefebure has structured her experiences in a linear and fluid fashion around key cases. She’s got a very practical, British can-do narrative voice that can be self-effacing but also shows her enthusiasm for her work and the professionalism that she, Dr Simpson and the detectives and other staff showed in their work. She does not shy from the horrors of some of the murders and other deaths that cross her path but there is also a slight ghoulish disappointment at having murders come in that are clearly cut and dry as to who is responsible.
From a forensics point of view it’s fascinating to hear of her accompanying Dr Simpson to crime scenes where she assists in collecting clippings and samples and putting them into envelopes so they can be examined later (although equals horrifying how people tramp in and out of crime scenes without covering themselves and only really worrying about finger prints because so many modern techniques weren’t available back then). Dr Simpson worked on a number of important and historical first cases, including the murder of Joan Pearl Wolfe, whose skull was the first to be shown to a jury. Lefebure’s account of that investigation is informative, detailed and it’s clear that she had a lot of respect for Dr Simpson and his work (just as his foreword to the book makes it clear he had respect for her work).
Also fascinating are how small details of what life in Blitz-era London was like, from a nightmare car journey in a “pea souper” fog with a driver who wasn’t quite as careful as you’d expect, to Lefebure giving an aside comment on collecting ration stamps for clothes and a cloth ink blotter to the fear of “doodlebugs” and other rockets. Some of these are horrifying – there’s one heartbreaking scene where she recounts how a bomb strike in Hammersmith necessitated Dr Simpson’s services and how she witnessed one shocked mother calmly asking about how best to handle the burial arrangements for her two children. I was particularly surprised at the number of murders in the book committed by sailors or soldiers – many of them Canadian or American – and how some murderers went not arrested because they were sent to the front or redeployed before an arrest could be made.
On the downside, Lefebure was a woman of her time and this is reflected in some of her attitudes. As I said, the book was first published in 1954 when attitudes towards disability, race and women’s sexuality were very different to what they are today. As such, some of Lefebure’s observations, while perfectly normal at the time they were written are now kinda iffy. For example, she talks about the suicide of a man with club feet and clear mental health issues and some of her comments are quite condescending and seem to write him off. Similarly, there’s one point where she’s being self-effacing about her appearances but uses a term that we now acknowledge as being racist and similarly, she uses some racially charged terms when describing Chinese people following a murder at a bar.
Most tellingly though is in her attitude towards promiscuity on the part of women. She talks about murders of prostitutes and, unspoken, is this sense of her seeing them as tragic women who were courting their fate. More tellingly, are two cases where the victims were 14 year old girls who were sexually active – in both she is definitely sniffy about them having almost deserved to be murdered to the point where their young age and the fact that so many women in Britain in this time were sleeping around, in some cases to make money. It forms a sharp contrast with her attitude to the murder of a 14 year old girl killed by a soldier with mental health issues because she was literally in the wrong place at the wrong time, where she places a clear emphasis on how young and innocent she was.
She’s also very sniffy about the state of some of the houses she has to visit and the condition in which their female occupants kept them, which is also typical of the time and condemns working class people for letting their children come back from the evacuation and then running wild. Indeed, I had a wry smile when I read her description of the rise of young gangs of thugs who went on violent, robbery sprees and how the answer was more punishment because they were clearly irredeemable because the discourse today hasn’t moved on much further.
Finally, Molly’s faith and praise for the police in this book is complete and unquestioning. Certainly, she never doubts that they will find the culprits and makes a point of mentioning their diligence and commitment. All this is no doubt true but it did make me question whether she had ever come across anyone who just couldn’t be bothered or was somewhat lackadaisical in their approach – but again, the book was written at a time when deference and respect for the police was the norm.
It’s difficult to make these criticisms of the book without making it seem like I’m criticising Lefebure as a person and that is absolutely not my intention at all. Reading this book, she comes across as having been a remarkable woman who was able to stay calm and professional under difficult circumstances and I do genuinely think that this is a book that’s ell worth a look if you’re interested in crime detection or what life in Britain was like during World War II.