Invisible Ink: No 107 - Hillary Waugh

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The Independent Culture

There are many sub-groups within the mystery genre, but one strand resurfaces with metronomic regularity: the police procedural. Readers love to see how investigations unfold, but real-life accounts of detection often involve relentless rounds of doorstep interviews and checking records, which don't make for high drama.

Hillary Waugh wanted to get away from the idea of smart detectives making the police look stupid, and focused instead on a crime and its aftermath as seen through the everyday working lives of the police; fiction created with true-crime authenticity. By doing so, he became one of the key pioneers of the procedural novel.

Born in Connecticut in 1920, Waugh served in the US Naval Air Corps, and had trouble settling on a subsequent career, eventually becoming a newspaper editor and a high-school teacher. His first novel was Madame Will Not Dine Tonight in 1947, followed by two more in a standard style that were not well received.

Then Waugh started reading true-crime books, and decided to adopt their verisimilitude. The result was Last Seen Wearing, a more detailed, realistic study of the dogged process of elimination that typifies police investigations. Based on a real unsolved crime, it was a critical success, and was named one of the top 100 best mystery novels by the Mystery Writers of America. Although a number of Waugh's works were adapted for TV in the 1960s, Last Seen Wearing was never filmed because the solution, though satisfying on the page, proved too tricky to adapt.

His novel Sleep Long, My Love was filmed as Jigsaw (1962), the upstate US action being relocated to Brighton, England, with Jack Warner and the dashing Ronald Lewis – who is now something of a forgotten actor. Like many of Waugh's novels, it centred on a small-town murder and the slowly tightening search for the culprit.

Waugh had found his niche and produced 50 such novels under his own name and several pseudonyms, spending time with New York homicide detectives to make sure his plots were factually accurate. Realism required writing frankly about sexual crimes, but the times were right and audiences accepted the darker story- lines they saw reflected in the press.

In 1991, the author (who died in 2008) published Hillary Waugh's Guide to Mysteries and Mystery Writing, in which he suggested that crime writers needed the instincts of good reporters. Last Seen Wearing is back in print, but most of the others require detective work to locate.

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