cid

commissaire inspector dottore

academic and personal thoughts on detective-inspector novels

last seen wearing ---

A student disappears from a tony New England women's college. Was she abducted? the victim of an abortionist? did she run away with a boyfriend? did a boyfriend murder her? Chief Ford and Sergeant Cameron of the local detective force run down every lead and bat around every theory till they learn the truth.

body count: one
method of killing: strangulation
narrative type: omniscient

this is the edition that I cite

Last Seen Wearing ---, a 1952 detective novel by Hillary Waugh, is sometimes seen as the first police procedural. It is later than Lawrence Treat's V as in Victim (1945) by several years, though, and in some respects marks an evolutionary node in the direction of the detective-inspector type of procedural. I don't include Treat on this site, though I mention him here and there, and perhaps I shouldn't include Waugh's novel, either. But the central dynamic in Last Seen Wearing --- is the byplay between Ford, the chief of police, and Cameron, his detective sergeant. Both are gruff, aging, verbally-abusive men locked in a longterm professional relationship. (Ford has been in the police department 33 years, Cameron 18.) Perhaps they have hearts of gold, but you wouldn't know it from the way they constantly snap at each other.

Ford, the supervisor, has learned on the job; Cameron has a college education. Each uses the dynamic to assert an upper hand in argument over the other, but since they proceed from different assumptions about the value of book learning, neither can ever win.

Ford said, "I didn't go to college so I couldn't learn about people in books. I had to learn about people from people. While you were getting yourself educated I was out discovering what made people tick, all kinds. I got an education out of the Police Department." (173)
A whale ship was my Yale College and my Harvard, indeed. But for all that they are opposites, Ford and Cameron clearly make a good team, keeping each other sharp, heading off any romantic assumptions that might cloud the pursuit of crime. At times they seem to be trying to out-cynic each other. Reality usually justifies the try.

In Last Seen Wearing --- the detectives, part of the force in the invented "Bristol, Massachusetts," are faced with the disappearance of a young student from the nearby women's college. There isn't a trace of young Lowell Mitchell, usually given the epithet "pretty." Her grades are OK, her family happy enough, no interpersonal conflicts in the dorms. Ford and Cameron immediately guess that Mitchell is pregnant and that her disappearance is connected to her condition: she's run away with the father, she's run away to get an abortion, she's ended her life in panic – or the father has ended it for her.

The past is truly a different country. Ford and Cameron make much of Lowell's "moral character," which to them consists of how far she'll go past modest necking. The double standard rules: all men are eager for sex at all times, and that's the natural order of things; whether sex is consummated is determined by the virtue of the women they pursue. "Your definition of a virgin is any girl over six who can run faster than her brother," Cameron tells Ford (129), and the raunchy one-liner epitomizes the sexual and moral universes of Waugh's novel.

Dating, 65 years ago, was evidently a heady brew of attack and defense, of constant moral and practical calculation, of doublethink and compartmentalization. Men, at least of the college class represented by Lowell's dates, try to get what they can and women try to get a wedding ring before submitting. A girl who's given in is too loose for marriage but can be enjoyed liberally without. Meanwhile, lots of intercourse is taking place but can be erased by denial or, if needed, abortion. Lowell's diary mentions all kinds of boys and all kinds of strictly-controlled encounters (one even resulting in the significant "soul-kiss," but her lack of any commentary on anything stronger gives the initial impression that she's the rare principled virgin at her college. But Ford realizes that he will have to read between the lines of the diary and find the code (three exclamation points!!!) that stands for intercourse.

Lowell's body washes up in a river; she was pregnant; all that's left is to find the father/killer. We never actually meet the character who's killed her. The cops zero in on him using logic, crime-scene analysis, and egregious violations of the Fourth Amendment. Waugh ends the narrative when the cops are on the brink of success, a nice narrative move that apparently ties things up but leaves the resolution (and, as so often, the punishment) to the reader's imagination.

The omniscient narration is fact-heavy, and matter-of-fact. Jack Webb's Dragnet had premiered on radio in 1949 (and then on TV in 1951), and Waugh's novel shows its influence, or that of other shows of its ilk. At one point, "the radio, turned down low, gave forth the growling tones of a mystery drama but Ford wasn't listening" (153). We get lots of exact times, dates and addresses, succinct summaries of detail (most of which proves irrelevant, of course). Nobody actually says "just the facts, ma'am," but it's not for lack of wanting to.

Waugh doesn't seem to have turned Last Seen Wearing --- into a series or consistently to have worked its generic vein. If he didn't, he missed a bet: he could have developed a memorable blend of the detective-inspector novel and the blunt procedural, along the lines of Ed McBain. As it is, Last Seen Wearing --- seems to have been widely read and widely translated, and may well have influenced many followers in the genre.