A secretary to a formidable London pathologist during World War II reissues her wry, grisly account of murder and corpses, first published in 1955.
Lefebure was a junior reporter at a London suburban weekly when Dr. Keith Simpson, the Home Office pathologist at Guy’s Hospital, tapped her as having the right stuff to be his forensics secretary. An intrepid workaholic who was hardly bashful or squeamish, and thoroughly capable, Lefebure—whose name her colleagues could not pronounce, so she was known as Miss L—was highly intrigued by the forensics work of her swift-moving boss. The work took her across bomb-scarred London to a dozen post-mortems per day, as well as to the various courts and Scotland Yard. The author’s job was to type up the reports as the pathologist dictated while laboring over his cadaver, no matter the time or place—e.g., during the bombings by the Germans. She coolly collected specimens of hair or teeth in little bags and labeled them so that the team could figure out the cause of death later in the lab. Her chapters break down in chronological order some of the notable or simply memorable cases she encountered from the spring of 1941, when she visited her first mortuary, where she was impressed by the cleanliness of the operation though put off by “the sound of a saw raspingly opening a skull,” to the late autumn of 1945, after the war had wound down, when she was planning on marrying and needed to find her successor—job qualifications: “Typing. Good verbatim shorthand. Tact. Interested in crime. No objection to mortuaries and corpses. Reasonably fast runner.” Despite the many ghastly descriptions of ruined cadavers, Lefebure’s youthful bravery shines through, while the grim conditions showcase her terrific wit.
Preserves like a frozen capsule the British grin-and-bear-it spirit and vocabulary of the WWII years.