“What you people can’t get through your heads is that under normal conditions you wouldn’t pay attention to something like that, but normal conditions don’t exist on that campus. A girl disappeared from there, which means something is wrong about that campus. Therefore anything that goes on there the least bit different from the ordinary, I want to know about it. If a girl breathes different from usual, even, I want to know why.”
When a student disappears from Parker College, an elite women’s school, it’s for one of three reasons: trouble at home, trouble at school, or a man. The missing girls always turn up in a day or two.
Eighteen-year-old Marilyn “Lowell” Mitchell came from a happy family and earned good grades. She wasn’t very interested in dating. Yet on Sunday, March 10, she walked off the Parker campus and vanished into thin air.
Last Seen Wearing is a landmark mystery novel, one of the earliest realistic police procedurals. And like many groundbreaking works, it’s been so influential that it may seem less than revolutionary to later readers. While Hillary Waugh was not the inventor of this subgenre, his work is edgier than previous procedural authors, and Last Seen Wearing very effectively sets the template for every gritty police drama to come.
The disappearance of Lowell Mitchell brings the genteel, feminine world of a single-sex college into conflict with the rough-and-tumble atmosphere of the police. The administrators of Parker College fence their students in with rules designed to keep them as innocent and childlike as possible. The girls must sign in and out of their dormitory. Lowell’s friends know that she intended to leave campus because she changed out of her jeans and into a skirt—Parker students are not allowed off campus in trousers. Police chief Frank Ford and Sergeant Cameron are unimpressed by these shows of virtue: “Now, don’t tell me you’re falling for that crap her family and friends are dishing out about how pure she is.” They know from their own experience that college girls are just as likely to get in trouble as anyone else.
What they don’t know is the exact nature of the trouble Lowell found herself in. Was she the victim of a random crime? Did she elope? Run away from school or family pressure, or just want to start an independent life? Ford and Cameron keep returning to the possibility of pregnancy and, especially, abortion.
Cameron stuck his hands on his hips. “What are you telling me that’s new? Sex is an angle any time any girl disappears.”
Ford sat down again and threw away his cigarette. “I’m telling you it’s more than an angle in this case,” he said. “I don’t know if it’s foul play, or abortion, or running off with somebody, but it’s something to do with sex. I’ll lay odds on it. That girl is built for it. Sex might even be an ugly word to her but it’s going to haunt her just the same.”
Beneath his cynical bluster, Ford really cares for the missing girl. (In a nice subversion of cliché, after his first day on the case, he comes home and gazes fondly upon his own teenage daughter. By the next day, he’s back to yelling at the kid again.) At one point, the team is chasing two separate leads, one that might have Lowell alive on land, and one that would have her dead in the harbor. Ford unleashes a furious, seemingly unmotivated, barrage of abuse upon Cameron, who understands completely. “Well, what do you know? The chief’s really bothered. The chief is really scared that is Lowell’s body the Harbor Police picked up.” Then the two men wait together for news. These hard-nosed cops bury their emotions with insults and gallows humor, but that doesn’t mean they are indifferent to victims and their families.
The wealth and prominence of the Mitchell family brings a lot of distractions to the investigation. Lowell’s father Carl is always hanging around the station, along with his private detective, who is viewed as an unnecessary annoyance by the police even though he does produce some useful information. The biggest intrusion comes from the press. The small college town is swarmed by reporters, “like vultures waiting to be fed and there was no doubt as to what their hope was. They only wanted it to be realized before their deadlines.”
Despite all this, Ford and Cameron remain focused on the day-to-day grind of police work, painstakingly interviewing witnesses and running down leads. These are the technical details that would have been so interesting when the book was first published but have lost their novelty over the decades. Some of the more unusual or retro aspects of the case are noteworthy, however. A lake is drained over the course of a long, tense day. A hapless officer is recruited to don a swimsuit and drag the freezing-cold river for an audience of appreciative college girls. Most impressively, Ford comes up with a clever way of determining whether a piece of evidence turned up in a certain location on its own or was placed there intentionally.
“Hell, Burt, you know police routine. It’s leg work, leg work, leg work. It’s covering every angle. It’s sifting a ton of sand for a grain of gold. It’s talking to a hundred people and getting nowhere and then going out and talking to a hundred more.”
The only real evidence they have is Lowell’s diary, and Ford is determined to investigate every man mentioned in its pages, however fleetingly. The journal is cleverly written by Waugh. At first it appears to be nothing more than an innocuous record of daily life. Lowell’s friends are getting engaged, but at times she herself seems painfully young, fretting about homework and delighting over Ichabod and Mr. Toad (“Disney is wonderful!”) Each time Ford returns to the diary, however, it reveals ominous new shades, signs that Lowell’s real life was lived between the lines.
Last Seen Wearing paints a dark picture of the Eisenhower era. It’s not only a cornerstone of the genre, it’s also a suspenseful mystery in its own right. As the hours and days tick away, chapter by chapter, the search for Lowell grows increasingly urgent. Though some of the police procedures may have become familiar tropes, the investigation moves forward with a fresh and profane energy that never flags.
This is one of those books that shows up on a lot of “Best of ” lists and is highly regarded as a landmark novel in the history of the genre. Though writers like Helen Reilly in the US and Nigel Morland in the UK had been writing excellent examples of the police procedural during the 1930s and 1940s apparently it was Hilary Waugh who had readers and critics alike take notice of a new kind of detective novel that would appeal to modern readers. Last Seen Wearing… is indeed one of the best examples and while there isn’t as much interesting detail about the relationships between the cops nor the dull bureaucracy that are both hallmarks of Jonathan Craig’s 6th Precinct series Waugh still shows that police can be just as clever and insightful as the brilliant amateurs who dominated the genre in the pre-World War 2 era of the Golden Age. This is a highly recommended book for serious fans of the genre. And I think many seasoned writers being published today might learn a thing or two by studying this lean and trenchant book.
Last Seen Wearing… is generally described as one of the earliest police procedurals, and it is impressive on that score.
Last Seen Wearing is out of print, with used copies widely available.