Sunday, May 22, 2022

Last Seen Wearing: Hillary Waugh

Last Seen Wearing by Hillary Waugh, published in 1952, is an early example of a true police procedural. I have wanted to read this book for years, because I am a fan of police procedural mysteries, whether vintage or current. 

I often label all mysteries involving police detectives and the police department as police procedurals, but true police procedurals follow the tedious day-to-day work that policemen do to identify the criminal, plus gathering enough evidence to convict. An example of this type of series is Ed McBain's 87th Precinct mysteries, which started in 1956 and continued up to 2005.


The story starts with the disappearance of a young female college freshman, Lowell Mitchell. The college she attends is in Bristol, Massachusetts, a fictional small town near Boston, Massachusetts. She goes missing on a Friday in early March 1950 after attending a morning class. Once the college dean ascertains that she is missing, the police are called in to investigate. The small police department in Bristol has less resources and less men to assign to the case than a big city police force. The press and the public are soon pressuring them for a solution, and Lowell's distraught parents also come to town. 

The police chief starts working on the assumption that Lowell had found out she was pregnant and might have been looking for an abortionist. Her family strongly objects to this supposition. The police discover her diary, and read it for clues, but Lowell seemed to have no ongoing relationship or boyfriend. They develop a large list of men that she could have been in contact with and investigate them one by one for any possible connection to the crime.

My Thoughts:

When I was a child I watched Dragnet, probably the first police procedural on TV. It was one of my father's favorite TV shows (along with Gunsmoke). When I started reading this book, some of it reminded me of watching an episode of Dragnet. Later I read the introduction, and it mentioned that the earlier radio program version of Dragnet was an influence on Hillary Waugh when he wrote this novel.

I am very glad I read this book finally, and it was a good read, but some portions of the first half of the book are very slow going and fairly boring just as a real investigation would be boring to outsider observers. Regardless, there is plenty of tension in the story. At first the police don't know if the young woman is merely missing or is dead.  Once the body is discovered, the investigation is more focused. 

I guessed who did it very early on but it was far from a certainty in my mind. A good bit before the book ends, the police know who did it but cannot prove it, so they have to come up with something that will prove it. 

I liked the two main police officers, the police chief and his sergeant. They have a friendly rivalry because the sergeant is college trained and his boss came up through the ranks. The relationship felt realistic and interesting. Other than that there is not a lot of character development, and the personal lives of the policemen are not explored in any depth. 

The introduction by Leslie Klinger is very good, with an excellent overview of the first police procedurals. There is also an "About the Author" section that is very useful and a list of recommended further reading related to this book. If you are interested in reading this book I recommend buying the Library of Congress Crime Classics edition of the book.

One additional note about this edition: I did not like the footnotes added by Leslie S. Klinger. Some of them provided useless information not related to the text; some seemed really elementary (but then maybe that is because I am older); some were interesting information, but took me out the story. Some other reviewers liked the footnotes, though.

Also see reviews at:

Pretty Sinister Books

Past Offences

Dead Yesterday


Publisher:  Poisoned Pen Press, 2021. (orig. publ. 1952)
Length:  240 pages
Format:  Trade Paperback
Setting:  USA, Massachusetts
Genre:   Mystery, Police Procedural


pattinase (abbott) said...

Pretty sure I read this long ago. I also like police procedurals and read all of the 87th Precinct as they arrived.

Jerry House said...

My favorite Hillary Waugh.

Margot Kinberg said...

It really is a challenge, isn't it, Tracy, to write a real police procedural without adding in so much detail that the going gets slow. On the one hand, the author wants to be authentic. On the other, there's the pacing and time and so on that has to be considered. I'm glad you found things to like about this one, even if there were some things that pulled you away from the story.

Kathy's Corner said...

Hi Tracy, This crime novel sounds really good and thanks for describing the distinction between police procedurals and regular detective mysteries. I have often wondered that myself and I am thinking an example of a police procedural on TV is Joe Kenda's Homocide Hunter. I think Lt Kenda is great and he really walks you though how they ended up solving the case.

TracyK said...

Patti, I wish I had read the 87th Precinct mysteries as they came out. I had a friend / coworker that I worked with for 29 years who was big fan of that series and she often suggested I read the books, but for some reason I thought I would not like them. So here I am, having only read the first five in the series and it isn't that easy to get copies of them. Maybe I will have to read them out of order.

TracyK said...

I am glad to hear that, Jerry. I do want to read more by Waugh, I just have to look around online I guess. They don't show up at the book sale I go to.

TracyK said...

There was more in this book to like than not, Margot. Not least of all the small town, college setting.

TracyK said...

Kathy, I had not heard of Homicide Hunter, it sounds very interesting.

I have always had a preference for mysteries that feature policemen as the detectives because they seem more realistic, and I do like all kinds, even when they don't focus on the investigation steps.

Cath said...

Unsurprisingly perhaps, I've not heard of this author at all. You're so good at coming up with unknown authors! I'm sure this is because I'm in the UK but is the author a well known writer of vintage crime fiction in the US or fairly obscure?

Rick Robinson said...

1. I’ve yet to read anything by Klinger that I like.
2. Colin Dexter used the same title for one of his Morse novels.
3. I read this in the late 1970s.

TracyK said...

Cath, I guess I would say he is fairly obscure, except to readers who are hardcore vintage mystery readers. Plus he wrote a good number of mysteries between 1947 and 1988 and I hardly ever see them reviewed, or at the book sale. I liked this one but cannot speak for any of the others.

TracyK said...

1. I thought the Introduction OK, but could have done without the footnotes. Otherwise, I know nothing about Klinger.
2. I do remember that Dexter used that title also. I think it was the 2nd in the series, which I have read. I noticed there a few other authors who used that title also.
3. This was my first time to read it. I don't think I even knew of it until after 2012 when I started blogging.

I hope Barbara is doing well after her cataract surgery.

NancyElin said...

Great review....and I may just try this one!
Dragnet...memories. "Just the facts, ma'am".
Oh, my father in 1950s was usually aways at work and some
family TV time was to finally be with him.
His favourites were MAVERICK. and The UNTOUCHABES with Eliot Ness.
Brings a smile to my face just writing this.
I can still hear Dad say about cowboy shows: We don't want "cowboy mush"... time for romance in Wild West Country! Ha!

TracyK said...

Nancy, great memories of family TV watching. I don't remember ever watching the UNTOUCHABLES, but we did watch MAVERICK. And yes, I remember "Just the facts, Ma'am" and Jack Webb's voice.

col2910 said...

Sounds good. I did acquire something by Waugh fairly recently and should give it and some of the McBain's a go.

TracyK said...

Col, I have read the first 4 or 5 in the McBain series, and I wanted to read them in order. But I may have to get realistic and read them out of order.

Neeru said...

Tracy, I found this a disappointment after hearing all the praise heaped on it. Here's my review of it, if you are interested:

TracyK said...

Neeru, thanks for including a link to your review. I did enjoy the book after waiting to read it so many years, but it certainly wasn't the best police procedural ever. I would recommend it to anyone who was interested in early police procedurals. I will look into the books by the same author that you liked better.