Book Review by Steve Matthews of Bookends:
Molly Lefebure, who died last month at the age of 93, was a much-loved Cumbrian author. She wrote two children’s books, Scratch and Co., and The Hunting of Wilberforce Pike, both illustrated by Alfred Wainwright. She was the author of three distinguished books on Cumbria – The English Lake District, Cumbrian Discovery and Cumberland Heritage. In 1984 she wrote a biography of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, A Bondage of Opium, and two years later she won the Lake District Book of the Year with The Bondage of Love, a biography of his wife.
This London girl was an enthusiastic member of the Blencathra Hunt. She was also the Miss Molly in the recent TV series about a war-time pathologist, Murder on the Home Front.
Molly was a determined crime reporter for an East London newspaper at the beginning of the war. She was intent on becoming a crime writer and would do anything to gain inside experience for her novels. When Dr Keith Simpson offered her the chance to become his secretary, she leapt at a job that would have disgusted most girls. She took her typewriter into the morgue and sat alongside the pathologist’s bench as Dr Keith went about his forensic dissection dictating his findings to her as he proceeded with his meticulous knife. It was “a non-stop round of post-mortems, investigating murders, suicides, manslaughters, infanticides, accidents and criminal abortions” as well as “Straight-uns”.
The job fascinated her, but not in a morbid way. She was closely present at anything between eight and twenty-five post mortems a day for a period of five hectic years, “prying into the secrets of thousands, literally thousands, of bodies, each with a tale to tell”.
Miss Molly was there when the disintegrated remains of Mrs Harry Dobkin were found in the cellar of a bombed Baptist chapel. “The body, that fragmentary body, wrapped in a dust sheet” might be “a case in a lifetime”. And so it proved. The body had been dismembered, burnt and covered in slaked-lime, but by piecing together the fragments – Molly describes it as though it were just a case of doing the most challenging of jigsaws – and by using dental records, the body was identified, the cause of death ascertained, and the murderer, Mrs Dobkin’s estranged husband brought to justice. The last Molly saw of Dobkin was when she recorded the post mortem on his body after the hanging. He’d “died quietly, bravely, praying ardentlt”.
Molly was there where she wanted to be, at the ring side of the criminal world. She met and worked alongside all the big names, Bernard Spillsbury, Fabian of the Yard, Albert Pierrepoint, the gentle, well-mannered hangman, and many others.
But, it is not the graphic reporting of criminal investigation as such which makes this an exceptional book. Molly Lefebure is a fine observer of life. She relishes the opportunity her work gives her to see all aspcts of life – the sordid hovels of the deperately poor, the genteel rooms of an aging prostitute, the bravery and steadfastness of people during the Blitz, the car-journeys through an all-enveloping pea-souper.
In a way, despite her later literary distinction, this is the book Molly Lefebure was born to write. She is alive to every facet of an exciting and disturbing new world. Despite the danger, destruction and degradation, she is having the time of her life.
And she knows how to write about it.
The Television series was based on the book and made up a totally new story. Murder on the Home Front is the real thing.
Murder on the Home Front is available from Bookends, 56 Castle Street, Carlisle, and 66 Main Street, Keswick, and from www.bookscumbria.com.