3 May 2015

Murder on the Home Front by Molly Lefebure

Apologies to the poor souls who ended up on the postmortem table after an untimely, and usually quite brutal, death but this book was a riveting read and thoroughly entertaining.  It came to the library as a donation and wasn't going to be added to the collection.  My reading tastes have become so predictable that a colleague knew exactly who would give it a good home and popped it into my Princeton file last month.

Molly Lefebure studied journalism at London University and had taken a secretarial course.  As a junior reporter at the beginning of WWII Molly worked an exhausting fourteen hour day, every day of the week.  The assignments providing the most interest and excitement involved the Coroner's Court and the police department.  An up and coming pathologist with the Home Office, Dr. Simpson, was looking for a secretary to take notes during examinations.  A perfect match was made.

It would be a fair bet to assume Molly's secretarial course never prepared her for taking shorthand while standing next to a pool of blood or tapping away on a typewriter while balanced on a casket.  A more dedicated employee would be hard to find as boyfriends were no match against a call from Dr. Simpson late at night to attend a suicide or murder scene. 
'"Spare time" mostly came at teatime, so, for the next few weeks, CKS arranged for us to take our tea beside the carbolic tank and its gruesome contents.  This, I thought, was a very unattractive idea to put the most insensitive off anchovy toast and tea cakes.  However, it was not my place to complain, so there I sat with my tea tray and memo pad, jotting the notes which CKS dictated to me as he stooped, all concentration, over the body.'
As a Canadian myself, I winced several times when it was a member of our army responsible for a young woman's murder.  And unfortunately it was women who ended up on the postmortem table far more often than men in this book.  The justice system during this era seems to have been carried out more efficiently than our modern times and Molly's accounts are straightforward, without drama, but perhaps, at times, a bit of gallows humour.

'The dead man would then be lifted off the cart by the warders who had wheeled it, and carried to the p.m. table.  He was clad in trousers, singlet, socks; no shoes.  Around his neck was the deep, livid mark of the noose.  Otherwise he always appeared perfectly peaceful and in many instances, I thought, positively relieved to be dead.'

 You can't help but admire Molly's dedication to the job.  As if blood, stench, mud, and maggots, weren't enough to deal with in a work day, this determined woman had to take cover under tables when doodle-bombs would whizz overhead.  Due to the blackout most of the postmortems had to be performed before 4 pm.  A much more idyllic side to Molly's occupation was a working holiday in Kent at Dr. Simpson's cottage typing notes for his next textbook while out in the garden.  She also thoroughly enjoyed the opportunity to have a good snoop around a murdered prostitute's flat as research for a fictional story she hoped to write one day.

Molly Lefebure felt terrible about being unavailable for war work due to her erratic work schedule but was consoled by the fact she was exposed to much of the war's outfall.  Dealing with the bodies of young soldiers who took cyanide rather than report for duty on the front lines or piecing together bodies from a bomb blast made her extremely relevant.  And if you ask me, a top-notch secretary as this is undoubtedly going above and beyond the job description of a secretary.

I remember watching this dramatized on PBS a couple of years ago.  The television program was enjoyable but the book is so much better.  For those interested in reading more about Molly, please click here.

Molly Lefebure
1919 - 2013

1 May 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating

1928 - 2014

The summer picnic gave ladies the chance to show off their baking hands.  On the barbecue pit, chickens and spareribs sputtered in their own fat and a sauce whose recipe was guarded in the family like a scandalous affair.  However in the ecumenical light of the summer picnic every true baking artist could reveal her prize to the delight and criticism of the town.  Orange sponge cakes and dark brown mounds dripping Hershey's chocolate stood layer to layer with ice white coconuts and light brown caramels.  Pound cakes sagged with their buttery weight and small children could no more resist licking their icings than their mothers could avoid slapping the sticky fingers.

I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings

24 April 2015

Friday's Literary Feast

Quotes from The Virago Book of Food:  The Joy of Eating

1818 - 48

'We always ate our meals with Mr. Heathcliffe.  I held the mistress's post in making tea and carving; so I was indispensable at table.  Catherine usually sat by me; but to-day she stole nearer to Hareton, and I presently saw she would have no more discretion in her friendship, than she had in her hostility.
  'Now, mind you don't talk with and notice your cousin too much,' were my whispered instructions as we entered the room.  'It will certainly annoy Mr. Heathcliffe, and he'll be mad at you both.'
  'I'm not going to,' she answered.
  The minute after, she had sidled to him, and was sticking primroses in his plate of porridge.'

Wuthering Heights

Emily Brontë

19 April 2015

The Vet's Daughter by Barbara Comyns

I remember the day this book was placed into my hands along with several others.  The sun was shining on Charing Cross Road and it was the first time I met Simon, Rachel, and Mary.  While I nipped back to the tea room at the National Gallery to collect the umbrella I had left behind, my three friends had amassed a small pile of books they thought I would like.  I specifically remember asking 'is this one really that good?' and Simon nodding 'yes' with a smile.

The introduction is a succinct autobiography by Comyns herself (of course) that I found utterly charming and in keeping with her style, brutally honest.  In less than a page she moved throughout her life from writing as a ten year-old, a homesick sister who ran away from boarding school, the death of her father, and attending art school.  I'm not completely sure whether Comyns was a bit of a magnet for weird events or it's just the way she tells a story but how many people meet partners this way...

'I married a young artist that I'd known slightly since we were children - actually, we first met on an Anglo-Saxon burial ground where excavations were going on in a field near my home...'

As for The Vet's Daughter, published by Virago in 1959, Comyns wrote 'the book seemed to write itself''.  A rather humble opinion of brilliant storytelling that's just implausible enough to read like a fairy tale dovetailed with the youthful naiveté of a teenager during the Edwardian era.

Alice Rowlands lives with her dying mother and insensitive ass of a father in a house that smells of animal.  Well, he is a vet, after all.  Thank goodness for Mrs. Churchill who is a bit worse for wear but very welcoming and warm in personality.  She is recently employed to help with the care of Mrs. Rowland and help out around the house.

Alice daydreams out of boredom, spends time with her friend, Lucy, who talks on her hands because she is deaf, and narrates what she experiences around Clapham Common.  Moments of comic darkness dot throughout such as the funeral director arriving to measure Mrs. Rowlands for her casket while still breathing on her deathbed.  A local floozy named Rosa becomes the vet's lover once he becomes a widower (read 'tasteless haste').  Thankfully, Alice gains an ally in Mr. Peebles, a locum vet.  It's apparent he sees potential in the relationship but to Alice he is more of a distraction from everything unstable and frightening in her surroundings.  When Mr. Rowlands suddenly announces that Alice is to leave the house because he despises her, she is sent by train to live with Mr. Peebles' mother in a lovely house.

'I drew the curtains for her and made up the fire and stirred it to a blaze.  Looking round the room I was surprised to see how elegant this upstairs drawing-room was; the pale blue carpet, decorated with roses and true lovers' knots, pleased me so much that I almost forgot my hunger.  There was a glass-fronted cabinet filled with delicate china; and pretty little chairs and sofas with curved legs were dotted round the room.  There were lovely glass things like heavy tinkerbells on the mantelpiece.  It was the largest and most enchanting room I'd ever seen.'

This enchanting house is not without its negative forces and Alice is once again plagued by the presence of manipulative people.  And then there is the handsome Nicholas.

All of these details could happen in any number of bleak accounts of classic fiction but Alice has a certain gift, talent, affliction...take your pick...in that she can levitate.  At first this happens spontaneously but Alice soon harnesses the ability to levitate at will with devastating consequences.

For some reason that would take a bit of thinking about, the tragedy of Joan of Arc came to mind while reading The Vet's Daughter.  A young impressionable girl who means well, experiences too much that can't be explained, and has to go through it all with a sense of loneliness.  I had to reread the last couple of pages because they couldn't be true; it couldn't end like that.  But it did.  Usually this would make me want to curse the author but I've come to realize this is just the way it is with Barbara Comyns and it's absolutely wonderful.