Marilyn Lowell Mitchell, an 18-year-old student at a fictional college in Bristol, Massachusetts, goes missing from her dorm. The alarm is raised by her friends on the following morning. The story follows the local police investigation from day one (Sunday March 3rd 1950) to its conclusion on April 11th. We see what they see, and learn what they learn, as slowly they home in on the solution to Lowell Mitchell’s disappearance.
Their investigation is painstaking, at times tedious (for them, not the reader), and frequently directionless.
‘There’s nothing else we can do. Hell, Burt, you know police routine. It’s leg work, leg work, leg work. It’s covering every angle. It’s shifting 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 one hundred more.’
Last Seen Wearing… is generally described as one of the earliest police procedurals, and it is impressive on that score. The relationship between the two police leading the search seems to be the prototype for many a mismatched pair of cops. Chief Ford is sarcastic, aggressive, ugly, and approaching retirement. Detective Sergeant Burt Cameron is younger, college educated, and sarcastic.
Ford said, ‘I wish I could go out there. I’d find her soon enough.’
‘Sure you would. you couldn’t even find her in your own precinct.’
‘Out there,’ stated Ford belligerently, ‘I’d have a detective sergeant who knew his onions. Here I’ve got nothing but a college boy who doesn’t know anything that doesn’t come out of a book!’
Cameron nodded appreciatively. ‘What do you know? The Chief is returning to normal. He’ getting ugly again.’
‘Sure I’m ugly. I’m a son of a bitch, but I’m going to find that girl.’
Obviously this all hides a mutual respect and affection.
I read Last Seen Wearing… because I have been looking out for a copy for years (I finally succumbed to the lure of online shopping), but also because August was #1952book month here on Past Offences. So how ‘1952’ is Last Seen Wearing…?
Lowell Mitchell’s diary plays an important role in the book. Some of the extremely 1950s opinions are pretty amusing these days.
…got into a gab fest with Peggy and Sally and Marlene on sex relations before marriage, of all things. Marlene thinks it’s a good idea. Says your first night with your husband would be more successful – purely an academic opinion. Sally said, ‘And that would make him suspicious.’ […] then we talked about with your fiance – trial marriage. Peggy says absolutely not. Sex is the whip you get the ring with.
And try this one on for size. ladies:
…got into a discussion with Peggy and Sally and Patty on the value of a college education for a girl. Sally thinks she’s wasting her time here since she has no desire to be a career girl. Neither have I, but college is more than just a way of passing one’s formative years. It gives a girl independence so she doesn’t have to marry right away and can choose better. It also makes her a more interesting companion to he husband and a better mother.
The police’s immediate working assumption is that somehow an illicit relationship is involved in the disappearance, and their initial investigations take in Lowell Mitchell’s boyfriends, local abortionists, and even taxi drivers she happens to mention in her diary. However, her father’s opinion that she is not that type of girl seems to hold water, and the evidence points to little more than the occasional ‘soul kiss’. So as a depiction of the life, opinions and risks of a young girl in that environment, it is an fascinating read.
I’d recommend Last Seen Wearing… whole-heartedly.
Crimepieces: Much of the detection work revolves around the discovery of Marilyn’s diary and the investigation focuses on whether the girl had a secret lover. In this respect, the book is startlingly modern, as Marilyn’s loss of virginity is discussed along with the possibilities of an accidental pregnancy and subsequent abortion.
Petrona: Oh happy memories! Perfect reading for a teenager in an England that was a very different place from its modern, globalized, form. Thank you Hillary Waugh – although your books have, I think, dated (I returned to one some years later and found it predictable) – I owe you a debt for introducing me to this rich genre of writing.