Forensic Medicine During the Blitz

Murder on the Home Front: A True Story of Morgues, Murders, and Mysteries, by Molly Lefebure (Grand Central Publishing)

I suspect that a year or so from now, the latest British import on PBS will be Murder on the Home Front, a BBC series based on the book I’m reviewing. The book, a memoir, recounts the experiences of Molly Lefebure, who worked as a secretary to a medical examiner during WWII. From a historical perspective, the material is fascinating—though I would welcome even more about the blitz and day-to-day life in London during this time. The forensic cases are interesting, and I was impressed to see how many of today’s best practices had already been established at that time, despite the significant differences in technology.

The author, Lefebure, is a strong, eccentric character, at times delightful, at others very off-putting. Despite strenuous efforts by any number of boyfriends and potential boyfriends to push her into a more ladylike profession, Lefebure, gifted with a strong stomach and endless curiosity, delights in her work. At one point she tells us, “You could spend a hundred years in London’s mortuaries and never be bored.”

My complaint about the book is that Lefebure is also a creature of her time, coming across to today’s readers as deeply callous. Early on, she describes the range of cases she worked on:

[T]he coster’s wife who killed herself because her husband sold his pony, the one creature in the world she had ever really loved and been loved by. There is the baby whose mother left it to starve while she had a good time hitting the hay with American soldiers…. The old lady who put her head in the gas oven because she was sure the wireless had given her cancer. The airman who bailed out and his parachute didn’t open. The bright young thing who didn’t want a baby. The tart who picked up a killer for a client. The pansy who couldn’t face life anymore.

Really? The tart? The pansy? This is the way we want to describe the victim of violent crime and the social outcast? I know I’m being ahistorical, but would it have been so wrong for a modern-day editor to mitigate this flippant unkindness?

She also narrates the case of a young man who kills his girlfriend so that “no one else could have her” because he fears her father will break them up. What I found troubling was how readily the author seemed to embrace this murder as an appropriate, even romantic response to the perceived threat. When the young woman’s father testifies in court, Lefebure tell us “this display of outraged fatherly virtue, sincere and perfectly appropriate as it was, annoyed the court, whose sympathies clearly lay with the lovers.” The young woman had defensive wounds. Her boyfriend strangled her while pounding her head against the floor. Yet a reluctance to classify the crime as murder is equated with sympathy for the lovers?

I am hoping that the television series will be able to build on the more interesting parts of the book and to avoid the book’s lack of empathy. If it doesn’t, I suspect I won’t be watching it–just as I found myself having difficulty reading the book in its entirety.

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