Small House of Everything

Small House of Everything

Friday, December 2, 2011


Last Seen Wearing... by Hillary Waugh (1952)

I'm not sure how "forgotten" this novel is but I'm willing to bet that not many modern readers have read it.  Which is a shame because Last Seen Wearing... still holds up very nicely, even after almost sixty years.

     This was Waugh's fourth mystery and his first major success.  British critic and mystery author Julian Symons included this in his list of the 100 best mystery novels.  Ditto the Mystery Writers of America and England's Crime Writers Association.  Considered one of the first modern police procedural novels, Waugh got his inspiration after reading true crime books and realizing that a mystery based on actual police techniques was worth attempting.  There are no subplots here, no overt sensationalism, no intimate details of the lives of the officers involved, no gimmicks, or maguffins, or distractions...just a straight-on narration of the investigation of the disappearance of a college co-ed.  It makes for a riveting read.

     Based on a 1946 unsolved murder that resulting in the formation of the Vermont state police, Waugh carefully builds his story step by step.  An eighteen-year-old student at a small Massachusetts college has disappeared and Police Chief Frank Ford is called in to investigate.  Even though Ford feels that this is probably a case of boy trouble (the girl might have been pregnant and was seeking an illegal abortion, or she may have run off with a man), he painstakingly follows the evidence.  Friends, family, and her diary all point to there being no man in her life, yet police determinedly check out every male mentioned in her diary with no results.  They follow every lead that comes their way but get nowhere.  A decapitated woman is found in Boston Harbor but it is shown not to be the missing girl.

     In the early spring a barrette belong to the girl is found near a small river.  Soon her body is found and is originally thought to have been a suicide.  Ford soon proves that this is a case of murder.  During autopsy it is discovered that she had been six weeks pregnant, something that astounded those who knew her.  Ford and his police department have to go back to square one and, in their plodding fashion, have to reexamine all the evidence.

     One amazing thing about this book is that the murderer never appears, nor does he have to.  Last Seen Wearing... is a tour de force that deserves a new generation of readers.

     Chief Ford made his only appearance in this novel, but seven years later Waugh created another classic police chief, Fred Fellows, who would be featured in eleven of Waugh's forty-six novels.

     Hillary Waugh (1920-2008) appears to be on his way to becoming a forgotten writer, despite being named a Grand Master by both the MWA and the Swedish Academy of Detection.  A past-president of the MWA, Waugh also edited one anthology for the organization and wrote a how-to book on mystery writing.


     For links to other of today's Forgotten Book, check out Pattinase.


  1. I read this in the 1970s and thought it was excellent. I still have that copy and should take it out and re-read it. Thanks for the reminder, Jerry