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. I was thinking this sounded familiar... I don't think it was ever mentioned that it was based on an actual person. It would be fascinating to read her real story!

    1. What a woman, Audrey! On top of it all, my image of Molly was a well-turned out, impeccably groomed young lady without a single chip in her nail polish. I am positive you would really enjoy this book so don't pass it up if you find a copy. And take a peek at Harriet's comment...another fascinating woman!

  2. I used to know Molly Lefebure a bit -- she was a great lover of Wordsworth, who I studied for a while, and I met her at various conferences. She was quite a character -- but I'd lost track of her and did not know of this aspect of her life. Amazing! Thanks for the review.

    1. Wow, Harriet! Quite a character indeed. This book would be twice the fun for you since you're able to recall Molly in the flesh. Thanks for sharing your own fascinating tidbit with me...must find out a bit about Wordsworth to find out what the attraction was.

  3. Thanks Darlene. I was able to reserve both the book and the DVD at the Toronto Public Library.

    Susan D

    1. Oh, that's wonderful, Susan! A friend at work came into the staff room waving the dvd so she's been tempted as well. I watched it a couple of years ago so the details are sketchy but perhaps some good advice would be not to eat dinner while you're watching. Enjoy!