Last Seen Wearing ... (Hillary Waugh novel)

Last Seen Wearing ... (Hillary Waugh novel)

infobox Book |
name = Last Seen Wearing ...
title_orig =
translator =

image_caption =
author = Hillary Waugh
illustrator =
cover_artist =
country = United States
language = English
genre = Mystery
publisher = Doubleday Crime Club
release_date = 1952
media_type = Print (Hardcover, Paperback)
pages = 191 pp
isbn = NA
preceded_by =
followed_by =

"Last Seen Wearing ..." (1952) is a U.S. detective novel by Hillary Waugh frequently referred to as the police procedural "par excellence". Set in a fictional college town in Massachusetts, the book is about a female fresher who goes missing and the painstaking investigation carried out by the police with the aim of finding out what has happened to her and, if necessary, tracking down any perpetrator who has done her harm.

Plot summary

"The police examine her past for any motive that might make her wish to disappear, or any reason why someone might want to kill her. They find her body after a long and frustrating search. As they sift all the evidence again and again, the identity of her killer slowly begins to emerge, like a photograph taking on recognizable features in the developing fluid" (Ian Ousby).

The novel, which minutely chronicles the work of the police, is told exclusively in chronological order. No piece of information is ever held back. At any given point in time, the reader knows just as much as the police—neither more nor less. The time narrated is 5½ weeks, from 3 March 1950 to 11 April 1950.

A step-by-step account of the work of the police as presented in the novel

(1) In broad daylight, at lunchtime on a cold winter's day, 18 year-old Marilyn Lowell Mitchell from Philadelphia disappears from her college campus situated in a small town in Massachusetts, 66 miles away from Boston. She has left all her things in her room, and her diary is found in one of her drawers. Her parents are informed, and eventually, on the following day, the police are called in.

(2) Right from the start of the investigation, chief of the local police Frank W. Ford's principle is "Cherchez le boy". In other words, the police think Lowell (or "Mitch", as she is sometimes called) might be pregnant, with or without her trying to contact a doctor willing to perform an abortion (illegal in 1950), or that she has just run off with some man. Both her fellow students and her parents declare all these speculations impossibilities and claim that Mitch is not that sort of girl; that she has had dates, but with no-one in particular; that she has never gone any further than "necking" and "soul-kissing"; and that she is definitely still a virgin. Her diary gives the police no clue whatsoever to prove the opposite.

(3) The police, however, pursue this line of investigation further. ("Look at her face. [...] It spells S-E-X to me.") Accordingly, they make a list of all the 47 males mentioned in the girl's diary, including even such unlikely figures as movie stars and local policemen, and consider all of them potential suspects. They also keep a watch on those shady doctors in town who might be willing to perform an illegal abortion, but the latter move does not lead anywhere.

(4) The process of elimination begins, based on the hypothesis that the diary could be deliberately misleading as far as her relationships to men are concerned. The 47 males are categorized into seven groups and then either questioned or eliminated right away:

#famous actors and Winston Churchill
#"casuals", i. e. men mentioned only once without any comment (a policeman she asked for directions; relatives; etc.)
#men she mentions only once but comments on (including some teachers, such as Harlan P Seward, her history teacher, and an older man called Charles M. Watson, who once dined at the same place as she and her friends)
#boys she has nothing to do with (for example her date's roommate)
#boys from back home (whom she has not written to or dated)
#boys she has dated (including blind dates)
#boys she "really has something to do with".

(5) As on the morning of her disappearance Marilyn Lowell Mitchell was seen walking along a nearby lake (an artificial one, with a river that runs through it and a dam), Ford, based on one of his hunches, has the lake drained, but no piece of evidence is found.

(6) When the police investigations slow down a bit as no results can be produced, Ford is confronted with John Monroe, a private investigator hired by the architect Carl Mitchell, the girl's father. Monroe, who Ford does not mind co-operating with, does not get anywhere either, but he nevertheless keeps developing his own theories. To one of Ford's colleagues, Mitchell has become "the disappearingest girl I ever saw".

This is the part of the book where several false leads are introduced:

*The police receive an anonymous letter saying that Marilyn Lowell is alive and well, just visiting friends. The police immediately suppose that it was written by some "crank", which soon is revealed to be true.
*After having been seen spying on the college students, someone who later turns out to be a young journalist out for a scoop, is chased by the police and brought down to the station.
*After the disappearance of the freshman has been extensively covered by all the newspapers, a report comes in saying that a lady claims she was sitting next to the missing girl on a Greyhound bus bound for Chicago. It is especially her clothes that exactly fit the description.
*A decapitated body is found in Boston Harbor. However, the post-mortem establishes that it belonged to a woman who had given birth to a child.

(7) On Friday, 17 March 1950, a college student, while crossing a bridge, happens to notice a small object lying at the bottom of the shallow river. This object turns out to be Marilyn Lowell Mitchell's hair clip. This seems to be evidence enough that the girl drowned in the river, and the search for her body is resumed. Eventually, it is found. At first it is generally assumed that the girl has—for whatever reason, but most likely in connexion with her unwanted pregnancy—committed suicide by jumping off the bridge. Ford, however, does not think so. Right at the time of the inquest he proves that this is wrong by having a large block of ice dropped into the river and subsequently by following its course. After this experiment it is a fact that the body was dumped where it was found and that it could not possibly have been washed ashore there. From now on, the student's disappearance is regarded as a murder case. What is more, it is found out during the post-mortem that the girl was six weeks pregnant—a fact her family did not know anything about.

(8) Seen in this new light, Marilyn Lowell Mitchell's diary is re-examined—first by McNarry, the District Attorney, a man who "couldn't find M in the alphabet", then again and again by Ford. Now that the police know that she was pregnant, her words "I'm late again" acquire an altogether different meaning: They refer to her having missed her period for the second time in a row rather than to having to catch up on her assignments.

(9) It is generally assumed now that he who is the father of her unborn child is also Marilyn Lowell Mitchell's murderer. Ford's hunch is that it is a local man ("There's no way of tracing the body back to somebody so we've got to trace somebody to the body"). Consequently, the police scrutinize the lives of those suspects who live in town, among them Seward. People from outside town are not completely eliminated though, for example the rather mysterious figure of Charles M. Watson, a travelling salesman.

(10) Also, Ford re-examines the diary, especially the entries dating back to six weeks before she was murdered—the time of conception, i. e. when she must have slept with her murderer—and realizes that it must be coded. Finally he breaks the code: It consists of three exclamation marks in a row. Each time this symbol appears at the end of a sentence the girl must have met her lover. The three exclamation marks appear for the first time in an entry on Friday, 16 December 1949. Christmas holidays that year started on the following Sunday, but as Marilyn Lowell Mitchell had no classes on Saturday, she left the college one day ahead of her classmates. The three exclamation marks can be found for the last time on 27 February 1950. Between that period, the code was used 23 times ("They sure went at it hot and heavy."). Interestingly, the girl met her lover on Saturday, 17 December 1949 (and then again on 3 January 1950)—a Saturday she told her parents she had stopped over in New York at a friend's place before finally going home to Philadelphia, which, however, turns out not to have been the case.

(11) The process of elimination continues. The list of suspects has been narrowed down to 17 men. The police focus their attention on Seward when they find out that on 16 December 1949 he left town on the same train as Marilyn Lowell Mitchell. Now they check up on Seward's past, his family, and the circumstances under which he lives now. Among other things, they find out that he has a record as a life-long womanizer. Also, they have his house searched by his maid, a Mrs Glover. However, 35 year-old Seward seems to have changed his ways: Mrs Glover cannot report having witnessed any "immoral" situations or any traces thereof. Taking into consideration that keeping such things a secret in a small town, where there is hardly any anonymity (cf. Stephen Dobyns' "The Church of Dead Girls", a novel in which, almost half a century later, a very similar atmosphere is created), the police come to the conclusion that Seward is "either innocent or smart".

(12) The number of suspects is further narrowed down by the fact that two conditions must be true for the murderer: He must have been in New York on 16 December 1949 and in the college town on 3 March (to dump the body). There are other conditions as well—for instance, he must own a car or at least have access to a car (again to dispose of the body). Nevertheless the police do have doubts as to the conclusiveness of their work so far ("You'd better remember we don't even know if he's the guy. Hell, what if his folks do say he didn't get home until late Saturday, what will it prove? Do you think a jury will say he's her lover because Lowell puts three exclamation points in her diary on that day?").

(13) Seward is shadowed round the clock now, but not directly approached by the police. They let him stew for a while, waiting for him to make a mistake or at least act conspicuously. While shadowing him they are faced with a girl coming out of Seward's house late one night. It is 20 year-old Mildred Naffzinger, an employee at the local drug store and "a little tart who knows her way around". She denies any connexion with Seward, but, after a long time of questioning, finally gives in, telling the police that Seward is her on-and-off lover (he dropped her when he began his affair with Mitchell, now he has taken it up again). Just as he persuaded Mitchell not to mention his name anywhere, including her diary, he has worked out a special code for arranging his secret meetings with Mildred (and obviously another code for his meetings with Mitchell, some code they could use right in the classroom without anybody noticing).

(14) Eventually the police search Seward's house and garden while he is safely teaching at the college and find Mitchell's handbag. The police are going to arrest him the moment he leaves the classroom, and it will turn out that he had a secret affair with her, made her pregnant and eventually, panicking, broke her neck when she told him that she was pregnant, that she would go public and that she expected him to marry her (which, among other things, would have ruined his career).

There is obviously no twist or surprise ending, as in that case all or at least most of the meticulous police work described in the novel would have to turn out wrong or in vain. There is no "lucid, astounding explanation presented to the group of suspects gathered in the library—but the accumulation of enough evidence to point to a suspect, justify an arrest and stand up in court" (Ousby).

The novel has never been filmed; in a film version, the killer, Harlan P Seward, would only be a minor character. He hardly ever appears in the novel: He is never directly approached, let alone cross-examined by the police, and he is not driven to committing any follow-up crimes either.


* "Given the right circumstances, the right time, and the right guy, any girl will say yes."
* "Sex is an angle any time any girl disappears."


It is generally accepted that the novel is based on the true case of the disappearance in the late 1940s of a Bennington College coed, Paula Weldon. That case has apparently never been solved. It resulted, however, in the creation of Vermont's state police which did not exist at the time of the disappearance.Fact|date=August 2007


*Reginald Hill: "Introduction" to the 1999 Pan edition of the novel (No.10 of the "Pan Classic Crime" series, ISBN 0-330-38989-0).
*Ian Ousby: "The Crime and Mystery Book. A Reader's Companion" (London, 1997) 139.
*Julian Symons: "Bloody Murder. From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel: A History" (1972) ("If a single book had to be chosen to show the possibilities in the police novel which are outside most crime fiction, no better example could be found than "Last Seen Wearing ...").
*T. J. Binyon: "Murder Will Out". The Detective in Fiction" (OUP, 1990) ("one of the best police novels so far written").
*In "The Hatchards Crime Companion. 100 Top Crime Novels Selected By the Crime Writers' Association", ed. Susan Moody (London, 1990), "Last Seen Wearing ..." is in 12th place of members' all-time favourites and in first place in the police procedural category.
*"The Crown Crime Companion. The Top 100 Mystery Novels of All Time Selected by the Mystery Writers of America" (New York, 1995) sees "Last Seen Wearing ..."in 74th place and in sixth place in the police procedural category.

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