Thursday, 7 September 2000

Hillary Waugh: Last Seen Wearing (1952)

Edition: Pan, 1999
Review number: 604

This is the novel which invented the "police procedural" subgenre of crime story. Today, Ed McBain is probably its best known exponent, though it seems particularly well suited to television, with Hill Street Blues and The Bill being successful examples. The idea, of course, is to portray a murder investigation as the police would carry it our rather than using Golden Age devices such as impossibly gifted detectives.

In this case, the investigation is into the disappearance of first year student Lowell Mitchell from Parker College in Massachusetts. The local police chief, Frank Ford, follows the usual course of alerting the press, searching the grounds of the college, dragging its lake, looking into travellers, watching doctors thought to perform illegal abortions (in case she went to one and the operation went wrong). Ford is not particularly imaginative (though more so than most of those around him), and a lack of leads leaves him baffled once the obvious has been tried and failed.

The weakness of the novel is in its plotting. It is very easy to be ahead of the police; they overlook some very prominent clues. This is not in itself a problem, as it is clearly intended as a device to make the reader feel superior. It is the overly transparent way in which it is done that is poor; every time someone says that something is a lead which must be followed up and it isn't, it turns out to be crucial to the investigation.

The major strength of the novel is the characterisation of Ford and his friend and subordinate Burton Cameron. Waugh has written a very good portrayal of a relationship between colleagues who know each other well, bickering as they work together.

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