Last Seen Wearing: 1952 v 1976

I had thought it would be fun to do a comparison between two books that I expected to be quite different, especially being able to compare Colin Dexter’s very male gaze to something more feminine from Hillary Waugh, only to find that I’d fallen into a common GAD trap and that whilst we never discover the gender of Sarah Caudwell’s Hilary Tamar, Hillary Waugh is definitely a man. So my bubble was deflated to begin with and then I thought that a compare and contrast was too much like an English literature assignment and hard to do without spoilers.

However having taken notes and having done a lot of reading recently, taking time out to do a little writing will be a nice diversion.

Last Seen Wearing (1952) by Hillary Waugh

Marilyn Lowell Mitchell, hereafter referred to by everyone as Lowell (an odd-sounding girl’s name to my ear) has disappeared by the end of the first page of the book, having last been seen by her roommate just before lunch.

The authorities of Parker College are anxious to avoid a scandal – which could cover a range of wrong-doing, after all young ladies can’t leave campus wearing jeans! – and so the police aren’t called in until the next day.

That is the beginning of a painstaking investigation as the police hunt for the missing girl – dead or alive – searching for witnesses, tracing every man mentioned in her diary, draining the campus lake, theorising and re-theorising, having small breakthroughs before finding themselves once more at a dead end.

This is no fairly clued mystery but an account of an overworked, local police force trying to do their best. They may appear hardened but that is just for public appearances, consider this description of Chief Ford:

“‘That Ford,’ said Mitchell bitterly to his wife as they took off their things, ‘he’s inhuman. This is just a job to him, like finding a pocketbook. He doesn’t give a damn about Lowell as a person. He’s only looking for her because he’s supposed to.’

Perhaps Carl Mitchell was right. Perhaps Chief Ford was lacking in human sympathy. The signs that he wasn’t were hard to find. For once he did not chastise his daughter for still being up when he got home at midnight. He stared at her bending over her books a little longer than necessary and kissed her good night a little more tenderly. That was all.”

The slightest piece of information may be of use to them, so they can’t afford to ignore anything, however unimportant it may seem:

“Monroe said, ‘Now don’t tell me you think that’s a clue!’

‘No, I don’t think it’s a clue, but I don’t know that it’s not a clue either. What you people can’t get through your heads  is that under normal conditions you wouldn’t pay any 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 even, I want to know why.'”

It’s not glamourous, it’s not about sitting back and waiting for inspiration:

“‘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 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 one hundred more.'”

This dogged approach, via a young lady rejoicing in the fantastic name of Mildred Naffzinger, leads them to the truth, although the ending is somewhat abrupt.

Last Seen Wearing (1976) by Colin Dexter

Schoolgirl Valerie Taylor disappeared two years, three months and two days ago. The officer in charge of the original missing-person inquiry died recently and so when a letter signed with her name is received, Inspector Morse is put on the case.

Although a policeman, Morse has no use for procedure, preferring instead to follow his personal flights of fancy, and if occasionally legwork is required, these tasks can be given to the long-suffering Sergeant Lewis.

During the course of his investigation Morse changes his mind several times on the key question of whether Valerie is dead or alive – and things become even more complicated when a murder in the present occurs.

There was a discussion on the GAD Facebook group recently about whether there was a point to quotations at the beginning of chapters, which Dexter uses in this book (possibly in all his books). In at least one case in this novel the quotation draws the reader’s attention to something that may be important. As Morse is a crossword fiend (his more acceptable hobby) these are sometimes cryptic clues and one corker that we get here is “We’ll get excited with Ring seat (10)” apparently one of Dexter’s favourites. The answer in ROT13 is Jntarevgrf.

Having read this before I was sure I knew what was going on and yet I still questioned myself at the end – had I remembered correctly or was what I thought was the final truth just a false solution? This just goes to show how Morse himself goes back and forth between possible outcomes.

As mentioned at the beginning of this piece, Dexter applies a very male gaze, and Morse has a keen interest in the naked female form, represented in this book by a strip club and Danish pornographic magazines (this is an element of the character that the ITV series steered away from), and from what I remember, sex is often a possible motive in a number of books in the series. But if that aspect doesn’t put you off, then this is a good classically styled mystery that will keep you guessing to the end.

One thought on “Last Seen Wearing: 1952 v 1976”

  1. I remember enjoying Waugh’s book. It may have been the first “procedural” I read, even though I did not know that term at the time. I am happy to hear that Dexter’s book is good too.

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