RogerBW's Blog

Evidence for the Crown, Molly Lefebure 30 May 2022

1954 non-fiction. Molly Lefebure was a junior reporter who took a job as secretary to Keith Simpson, the Supervisor of Medico-Legal Post-Mortems and the forensic pathologist most often consulted by the Metropolitan Police. Reissued in 1990 as Murder on the Home Front.

There's a great deal of fascinating stuff here, on several levels. Lefebure was probably the first woman to work in an English mortuary, and this is autobiography as well as recollection: various friends thought the work clearly too horrible for words, and "secretary" meant not only taking shorthand dictation over a corpse in the dissecting-room but going to crime scenes and gathering evidence. (She points out what should be a surprise to nobody, that her female friends were thoroughly ghoulish right up to the point at which a man came into the room, at which they became pink and fluffy.)

The actual crimes are surprisingly mundane even by the standards of the day: yes, one is aware that most murder is done as an escalation of existing tensions and by the most obvious person, but it's very much reinforced here, with every murdered woman in particular quite clearly shown to have been killed by husband or boyfriend. Yes, McKinstry the Canadian soldier who (probably) half-strangled Peggy Richards and threw her off the not-yet-open Waterloo Bridge should have taken care not to be seen leaving a pub with her; but at that point he wasn't planning to kill her, and the argument started later.

Some of the cases are technically interesting – in particular the Dobkin case, with a body part-burned and buried in slaked lime, oh dear someone didn't know his Crippen, and hidden in a bombed-out chapel in Kennington presumably in the hope that it would be mistaken for a victim of the bombing. (But the husband was a firewatcher, and the chapel was next door to his post…)

There's also a hefty dose of the attitudes of the time. (We are told that "some passages have been edited for this edition".) Reading elsewhere suggests that Simpson was entirely in favour of legal abortion, perhaps since he so often met the results of its illegality, but regarded homosexuals as perverts who should just stop doing that and then everything would be all right. Meanwhile Lefebure, who certainly wasn't of the upper crust but was able to indulge in rock-climbing and riding to hounds, is stunned by the poverty she encounters. She likes fresh air, and despises the warm fug in which poor people apparently like to live. (Well, fresh air is all very well, but re-heating a cold house costs money you don't have…) One almost pictures her asking "but have you tried not being poor?" – in keeping with the common attitude of the times, she sees an individual's problems as that individual's problems, rather than considering how the person might have got into that situation. More generally she knows deep in her bones that there's a right way and a wrong way to live, and it's basically the same way for everyone.

On the other hand, she's clearly sidling up towards finding the death penalty barbaric, regarding the contemporaneous system of executions taking place within prisons attended only by professionals as far superior to the historical spectacles of Tyburn, and:

I have sometimes thought that if murderers were not hanged the public would not take such a bloodthirsty interest in the subject of murder, and that if public excitement were not so intense there would not be so many murders.

A fascinating book, recommended for period detail.

[Buy this at Amazon] and help support the blog.

See also:
Forty Years of Murder, Keith Simpson

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