Originally published in 1952.
It’s a perfectly typical day for Lowell Mitchell at her perfectly ordinary university in Massachusetts. She goes to class, chats with friends, and retires to her dorm room. Everything is normal until suddenly it’s not—in the blink of an eye, Lowell is gone.
Facts are everything for Police Chief Frank Ford. He’s a small-town cop, and he knows only hard evidence and thorough procedure will lead him to the truth. Together with the wise-cracking officer Burt Cameron, the grizzled chief will deal with the distraught family, chase dead-end leads, interrogate shady witnesses, and spend late nights ruminating over black coffee and cigars. Everyone tells him what a good, responsible girl Lowell is. But Ford believes that Lowell had a secret and that if he can discover it, this case will crack wide open.
Considered one of the first-ever police procedurals and hailed as an American mystery milestone, Last Seen Wearing—based on a true story—builds suspense through its accurate portrayal of an official police investigation. Hillary Waugh, who earned the title of Grand Master from the Mystery Writers of America, went on to create several memorable series, but this classic crime novel ranks among his finest work.
Last Seen Wearing is a very early example of the police procedural style of crime fiction. That is a type of mystery in which the solution is less important than the means by which we reach it, with a focus on accurately replicating the types of processes and techniques used by the police services.
While I am not convinced by claims that it is the first (the introduction to the book for instance references Lawrence Treat’s V as in Victim which was published a year earlier and Dragnet while I would point to Georges Simenon and Henry Wade as two other earlier examples), it seems clear that this work was quite influential in the development of the subgenre. For example, in 1990 the Crime Writers Association picked it as one of the hundred best crime novels as did the Mystery Writers of America a few years later.
In just a couple of pages at the start of the novel Waugh outlines the background to the case. We learn that Lowell Mitchell, an eighteen year old freshman at Parker College, opted out of going to lunch with her roommate Peggy, telling her that she is feeling sick. When Peggy returned to their room a short while later, she found Lowell’s bed empty and with no sign of her friend on campus, her concerns for her friend grow until, just after the midnight curfew, Peggy decides to tell the housemother that Lowell is missing.
Miss Grenfell makes enquiries and the building and grounds are searched but with no clues as to her whereabouts, she finally makes a call to the authorities to report the disappearance. A body soon turns up and while the circumstances are suggestive of suicide, a small detail at the crime scene makes it clear that it is a case of murder…
Rather than dividing his novel into chapters, Waugh presents the story as one, long continuous narrative. There are time and date headings but while we may occasionally skip forward a little in time, we remain firmly focused on the efforts of a pair of characters. No major discoveries take place during those brief time jumps, nor are any details withheld from the reader. There is, in other words, a real sense that the reader is getting a detailed picture of an entire investigation.
One consequence of that approach is that the plot can feel a little simplistic. Readers should not come to this expecting to find twists or an investigation that seems to evolve. Here the terms of that investigation are pretty consistent from the start to its conclusion and there is little that is likely to surprise, though that may reflect that social values have shifted considerably since publication and I could imagine that contemporary readers may have been more surprised by some plot points relating to what the book terms ‘morality’.
The other consequence of the approach Waugh takes is that while there are elements of detection as the reader is not really given any opportunity to solve this crime. In fact we actually spend very little time at all with any of the suspects – at least directly – and so we don’t really get to know them as people. In other circumstances I might well have had less patience for that but I think it works here to focus our attention on questions of why and how Lowell was killed rather than who is psychologically likely to do so. The answers to those questions did not surprise me but I was interested in how the police came to their conclusions.
Waugh’s characterizations of the two lead police detectives can similarly be seen as a little simple, though I think he manages to establish them as two quite distinct types, often finding interesting contrast between them. Some of that is educational, with one character noting that he learned his profession through experience rather than through books – a familiar conflict now (see episodes of Endeavour and Daziel and Pascoe for starters) but one that would have felt much fresher at the time and which is handled quite well.
One aspect of the way these characters were written that struck me was that Chief Ford, clearly emotionally invested in solving the case, engages in some very abrasive and aggressive questioning of a young, female suspect at one point that verges on cruelty. I suspect that is intended to reflect Ford’s passion to solve the case, but it is one of those elements of the novel that feels a little stuck in its time. Similarly, I rolled my eyes several times at the way that our police protagonists discuss that question of ‘morality’.
While many of the characters we encounter in the investigation are only met briefly, a few make big impressions for reasons other than the way they were characterized. One of my favorites was Mildred Naffzinger, a character who can boast one of the most distinctive names I have come across in detective fiction.
The solution to the case is, as I suggested earlier, not particularly surprising and some may find the reveal to be a little anticlimactic. Still, in spite of feeling very confident from early in the book where it was headed, I enjoyed watching it take shape as the case was slowly pieced together over the course of the story.
The Verdict: Offers few surprises but I enjoyed the experience of seeing the case get pieced together.