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Last Updated on May 7, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1689

One of the most interesting aspects of the detective story is the vast variety of forms it has taken in its history. The police procedural, one major variation of the detective novel, got its start in the 1940’s and 1950’s with the work of writers such as Lawrence Treat and...

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One of the most interesting aspects of the detective story is the vast variety of forms it has taken in its history. The police procedural, one major variation of the detective novel, got its start in the 1940’s and 1950’s with the work of writers such as Lawrence Treat and Hillary Waugh and has since become one of the most popular forms of the genre. This particular type of story follows the efforts of a police officer or a police force (not a gifted amateur or a private eye) working toward solving a case. Waugh himself explains this emphasis in an essay, “The Police Procedural,” in John Ball’s The Mystery Story (1976):The police procedural thrusts the detective into the middle of a working police force, full of rules and regulations. Instead of bypassing the police, as did its predecessors, the procedural takes the reader inside the department and shows how it operates. These are stories, not just about policemen, but about the world of the policeman. Police Inspector Charlie Chan doesn’t belong. (There’re no police.) Nor does Inspector Maigret. (There are police, but Maigret, like Chan, remains his own man.)

Thus, the police procedural presents a realistic milieu to the reader; the emphasis is on ordinary police officers who solve cases through a combination of diligence, intelligence, and luck. Waugh helped pioneer this particular form and remains one of its masters.

Waugh began to write while he was a pilot in the navy, and he began his career with three fairly standard private eye novels: Madam Will Not Dine Tonight, Hope to Die (1948), and The Odds Run Out (1949). He returned to the private eye form in the early 1980’s with his Simon Kaye novels, a series of entertaining mysteries. It was in 1950, however, that Waugh began a work that would become an influential classic, a work that would help define the emerging type of detective novel known as the police procedural. In writing that novel, Waugh found himself influenced by an unlikely source. In 1949, he had read a book by Charles M. Boswell titled They All Died Young: A Case Book of True and Unusual Murders (1949). The book, a true-crime collection of ten stories about murders of young girls, had a tremendous impact on Waugh. “I went through those stories, one by one, and was never the same thereafter.” Waugh resolved to write a detective story in the same matter-of-fact style as that of Boswell, a detective story that would show how the police of a small town would solve the case of the disappearance and murder of a college girl. That novel, which appeared in 1952 as Last Seen Wearing . . . , is still considered by many to be one of the best detective stories ever written.

Last Seen Wearing . . .

That novel, which appeared in 1952 as Last Seen Wearing . . . , is still considered by many to be one of the best detective stories ever written. The detectives in the story are Frank Ford and his sergeant, Burton Cameron, two ordinary police officers who are well-drawn and realistic characters. In fact, they were so realistic that the rough, grouchy Ford seemed to take over the work as the novel progressed. Waugh had originally intended the two to be modeled on the rather nondescript detectives of the true-crime stories—solid professionals with no outstanding features. Instead, the realistic, complex portrayal of the detectives became an important part of the story and was to become an important part of later successful police procedurals. Like the classic puzzle story or the private eye story, the successful police procedural depends on and revolves around the detectives. Ford and Cameron lack the genius of Sherlock Holmes or the guile of Sam Spade, but they make up for that by being admirably professional police officers and believable, engaging characters.

Sleep Long, My Love

Waugh had clearly hit on a successful formula. In 1959, he returned to the idea of a small-town police force in Sleep Long, My Love. That novel featured a slightly overweight, folksy gentleman named Fred Fellows, the chief of police of Stockford, Connecticut. Over the next nine years, Fellows appeared in eleven novels, and it is these novels that show Waugh in full mastery of the form.

In the creation of Fellows, Waugh transformed a stereotype into a complex, three-dimensional character. Police officers in small towns have often been portrayed as inept and bumbling, if not incompetent and corrupt. Stockford is definitely a typical small town (except for its extraordinarily high crime rate), and Fellows is, on the surface, the typical small-town police chief. He is fifty-three at the beginning of the series, and he is married, father to four children—a devoted family man. He is slightly overweight, a source of anxiety for him. He chews tobacco and has nude pinups on the wall of his office. Deliberate and methodical, he has a penchant for telling stories in the manner of parables, using them to illustrate his thought processes.

Road Block

In Fellows’s second adventure, Road Block (1960), one of the crooks planning a payroll holdup in Stockford dismisses Fellows and his force as “a bunch of hick cops.” As that criminal and many others discover, the truth of the matter is that Fellows and his coworkers are a group of very talented police officers. In Road Block, Fellows tracks down the criminals by using the mileage on the odometer of a car and catches them by feeding them false reports over the police radio. Behind Fellows’s genial, folksy manner, the reader discovers a complex individual—a police officer who is not bound by his office, but instead brings to it shrewdness and imaginative thinking.

Fellows Series

In addition to introducing a realistic detective, Waugh set a precedent in the Fellows series by giving attention to the actual nuts and bolts of a police investigation. Rather than dismissing the details—the endless interviewing of suspects and witnesses, the tracking down of leads that prove to be false as well as those that are valuable, the combing of neighborhoods, the searching through all types of records—Waugh relishes them, utilizing them to create suspense. For an organized police force, bound by the legal system, cases are built piece by piece. Information comes in as bits and pieces—some useful, some worthless. Detection for Fellows and his men is pure work—work that sometimes leads nowhere, yet work that ultimately pays off.In Waugh’s deft hands, the step-by-step, repetitive legwork of a case is never dull. By allowing the reader to focus on the detectives as they sort out the details of the case, Waugh builds suspense the same way his detectives build their cases, moving step by step. As he says, “The tension should build to an explosion, not a let-down.”

All the novels in the Fellows series exhibit another strength of Waugh’s writing—his tight, believable plots. Waugh does not use the multiple-case approach of later writers; each novel focuses on a single case, following it from beginning to end. Road Block, for example, begins with the crooks planning the holdup, and their plans are revealed in great detail. As the robbery unfolds and the plans go awry, the story moves swiftly. Time is of the essence for Fellows, and the novel reflects that. There is no time for subplots, and there are none. Every detail of the novel builds the suspense of the case, propelling it toward the climax.

The Missing Man

Another example is The Missing Man (1964), which begins with the discovery of the body of a young woman on the beach of a lake near Stockford. The case is a frustrating one for Fellows and his men as they struggle to identify both the victim and her murderer; although it takes them weeks to solve the case, there are no extraneous subplots. This deliberate focus is a skillful way of building tension in the work, forcing the reader to continue turning pages. There are simply no lulls in the action.

Frank Sessions Series

After leaving Fred Fellows, Waugh turned his attention to another police officer, Detective Second Grade Frank Sessions of the homicide squad, Manhattan North. Sessions first appeared in 30 Manhattan East (1968), which appeared the same year as the last Fellows novel, The Con Game; he also appeared in The Young Prey (1969) and Finish Me Off (1970). With this trio of brutal and gritty novels, Waugh left the small-town locale of Fellows and Ford for the big city, but he did not abandon the strengths and innovations of his earlier works. As a central character, Sessions is complex enough to sustain the reader’s interest. A sixteen-year veteran of the force, Sessions, like Fellows and Ford, is a true professional. On one hand, he sees police work for the demanding job that it is; on the other, he remains dedicated to that difficult job.

In the three Sessions novels, Waugh pays even more attention to the detailed legwork of the cases. The everyday workings of a police department are once again the primary focus, and the manner in which the homicide squad of Manhattan North goes about solving a case is examined very closely. The urban setting amplifies the importance of the tedious, repetitive legwork, for here it is even more difficult to reach a solution to a case. The late 1960’s were an uneasy time in the history of America, and Waugh captures the uneasiness and unrest perfectly. It was an especially difficult time to be an urban police officer, and the Sessions novels reflect that. Like his other works, these novels demonstrate Waugh’s mastery of the procedural; the three Sessions novels are textbook examples of tight, controlled plotting and masterful storytelling.

The police procedural form owes much to Waugh; that is apparent. Yet, for all of his pioneering and innovation, Waugh’s greatest claim to fame is the simple fact that he is an excellent storyteller. All of his works—be they police procedurals, private eye novels, or other types of works—show this ability. His long career attests the fact that, above all, Waugh tells a story that people take great pleasure in reading.

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