Pick Your Victim, by Pat McGerr (1944)

dell307WARNING: This book is a classic work of detective fiction, which means that part of its potential enjoyment is based on surprising the reader. If you read this review, you are likely to find out more than you may want to know about this book, although the identity of the VICTIM and other significant details are not revealed here. If you proceed past this point, you’re on your own. 

What’s this book about?

We begin in a small US Marine base in the Aleutians in 1944. Before being caught by the draft, Pete Robbins was a publicity agent for the Society To Uplift Domestic Service (SUDS), which provided a monthly information packet to its homemaker subscribers of recipes, homemaking hints, child-care information, etc. While the Marines are “waiting for something to happen,” the boredom is exquisite. “All books and papers that came in were passed around until they were worn to rags.” A scrap of newspaper used as padding for a parcel from home reveals that his former boss, Paul Stetson, the managing director of SUDS, has murdered … well, the crucial piece isn’t there, but the surrounding material reveals that the victim was also an executive of the organization. So the Marines know who the murderer is, but not the victim. Under the leadership of the murderer, SUDS was in the process of increasing its reach and power a hundred-fold, and many of the employees were finding both the process and their fellow employees problematic. Some were forming plans to create a rival organization. Which executive provoked Paul Stetson sufficiently to lose his temper, grab a nearby woollen scarf, and strangle them?

3c84ccd26e1521c96c1eaf8915ec40cbIn a believable development among terminally bored Marines, the group forms a betting pool based on Robbins’s listing of the eight executive employees of SUDS. Most of the remainder of the book is devoted to Pete’s telling of the entire history of his employment in exhaustive detail before the Marines place their bets; each prospective victim comes up for discussion in a hilarious reversal of the climatic “gathering in the library” scene. Buried in the morass of detail are some tiny clues which are assembled by one Marine in order to pinpoint the correct victim, before Pete receives an un-torn version of the newspaper clipping from home.

UnknownWhy is this worth reading?

Pat (Patricia) McGerr is not a household word in the mystery world, but she was certainly an ingenious writer. This novel is the first, and one of the few examples, of a reversal of the whodunit form which I’ll call the whogotit. The killer’s identity is known but the victim’s is not. McGerr did at least one other whogotit, 1948’s The Seven Deadly Sisters.  (We know that one of seven sisters has murdered her husband, we just don’t know which sister.) As you can imagine, it’s exceptionally difficult to come up with a structure for a novel that makes this possible. McGerr managed it twice. Both suffer from the same problem; yes, McGerr is clever, but she’s just not a very good writer.

This novel has a number of structural problems, principal among which is that it’s kind of boring. The entire action of the novel is by necessity told in flashback to serve the plot reversal; I’ll suggest that the more flashback there is in a novel, the less vitality, and hence this book has just about none. None of the characters are all that interesting. The Marines are indistinguishable each from the other, and although the characterization of the SUDS executives is somewhat more creative, it’s not great. The same with the writing itself: not much in the way of effective description, nothing memorable in the way of description, no real knack for dialogue. There’s some interesting social context about the war effort.

The strength of this book is entirely in its plotting and construction, and here it’s on solid ground. The planting of the most delicate clues is beautifully handled — in the last few pages when you realize the clue you’ve overlooked, it all comes together with a satisfying “snap” in your mind and there seems to be a one-and-only-one solution to the identity of the victim. Once you accept the framing story of the Aleutian Marine base, everything flows well and there’s a steady stream of story that unfolds naturally and in a realistic way. It’s just not all that interesting a story.

This is the kind of novel that has an underground following. It’s never been particularly available for reading; the most common version is the Dell mapback edition from the late 1940s. If you mention it in a group of knowledgeable mystery readers, quite a few of them will never have heard of this novel or its author. But one or two will nod, and smile, and say, “Oh, yeah, that’s a pretty crazy one, isn’t it!” You may find it worth your time if only for the clever nature of the plotting; not many books are this smart.

My favourite edition

I came to this book via the Dell mapback edition (Dell #307) and, just generally, any mapback edition is automatically my favourite; I love that series. I found an illustration on the internet showing both the front and back covers. although the “crime map on back cover” here contributes little to your understanding of the plot. The Dell edition has a wonderful illustration that has absolutely nothing to do with the novel; even though, yes, it would have been fun to have the victim of a book called Pick Your Victim found murdered with a pick, it just doesn’t happen here. Nevertheless that grotesque smeary skull-face and immense set of green gloves are fun and lurid.

The first, from Doubleday Crime Club, is today represented on ABE Books with a single listing, VG in jacket, for $80 plus shipping. You’ll be able to find a reading copy in the mapback edition between $10 and $20. To the best of my knowledge, no electronic versions currently exist.

4 thoughts on “Pick Your Victim, by Pat McGerr (1944)

  1. Bev Hankins says:

    I love those Mapback versions myself…but the Crime Club cover also has its charms. I’d heard the name Pat McGerr before, but haven’t had the chance to read any. This sounds like one to read for the novelty rather than excellence in writing.

    • Noah Stewart says:

      The Crime Club cover was new to me, but it is attractive — and more concerned with the actual story than the mapback. I have a paperback of Seven Deadly Sisters, which I recall was quite poor, and a couple of her spy novels that I don’t recommend. I think the best novelty will be found in Pick Your Victim. But Douglas Greene mentioned to me on Facebook that he liked it more than I did, so — doubtless he has good reasons, and you may share them with him.

  2. shay (USMC-USMCR 1979-2000) says:

    I’ll have to look for a copy, if only to see if she gets the Marine parts right (few writers do).

  3. I skimmed your review a bit Noah as I don’t have this one – but will try to remedy that! Thanks.

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