Mike Shayne began his life as a fictional private detective in a 1939 novel written by David Dresser under the pseudonym of Brett Halliday. After about 50 novels by Dresser, the series was handed over to a number of ghostwriters including Robert Terrall, who also wrote the Ben Gates mysteries under the pen name of Robert Kyle. As Mike Shayne was nearing the end of his run in 1974, Terrall authored the 65th novel-length installment, Last Seen Hitchhiking, a book that takes Shayne to some very dark places.
Meri Gillespie is a 23 year-old grad student hitchhiking north from Miami - a mode of transportation she’s been using without incident since she was 14. She ignores news reports of a maniac killing female hitchhikers on Florida highways and takes a ride from a sour-smelling young man. Just her luck, he injects poor Meri with a needle rendering her unconscious in the passenger seat of his station wagon.
Meri awakens naked and strapped to what appears to be a gynecologist’s examination table with her feet belted into stirrups. The kidnapper explains that he is a med student seeking to use Meri in his own research involving human sexuality - specifically unlocking the female orgasm with an unwilling participant. If you’re gathering that this is a bit more graphic and extreme than Michael Shayne circa 1945, you’d be right. The scenes where Meri is forced to submit to her captor’s wishes are far more graphic than we normally read in vintage crime paperbacks. Consider yourself warned.
Before getting kidnapped, Meri had been banging her college professor (consensually), and the relationship had gone south. As Meri was leaving to hitchhike to an ex-boyfriend’s place in Fort Myers, she stole a valuable artifact of great academic significance from the professor who hires a female private investigator named Frieda to recover the artifact. The lady gumshoe quickly learns that Meri never made it to Fort Myers and brings Mike Shayne into the case suspecting foul play on the highway. After all, there’s a maniac in Florida snatching up female hitchhikers.
The Florida Highway Patrol has been notified of Meri’s disappearance, but it doesn’t seem like they’re doing much. Working as partners, Mike and Freida trace logical leads to see if Meri’s disappearance was a targeted attack by someone looking to obtain the valuable artifact that Meri swiped from the professor. It’s an interesting literary tactic because the reader is told in the opening chapters the precise awfulness that actually befell the young coed - making the normal investigation seemingly fruitless. How will Mike and Freida connect the dots to find the creepy sex-researcher holding Meri and the artifact?
The story regarding the sex-fiend kidnapper of hitchhikers was awesome. It was a fantastically perverted cat and mouse game. The subplot about the missing artifact was a distraction that felt like filler to me. It was a weird dichotomy to have Shayne so concerned about an archaeological treasure and be seemingly unconcerned about the missing hitchhikers for much of the paperback. Interestingly, Freida was one of the best female detectives I can ever remember reading. She far outshines Shayne in his own book.
Despite these reservations, I still thought Last Seen Hitchhiking was a pretty good Mike Shayne installment. I’ve always found Shayne to be rather generic, and this one was no different in that regard. The biggest asset for the novel was a villain who will really make your skin crawl, so this late-series installment is an easy, if not full-throated, recommendation.