The cover of this Dell mapback edition of Pick Your Victim (1946) by Pat/Patricia McGerr is one of the oddest I have ever encountered. Not only does the front imply a masked — or, y’know, deformed — serial killer disposing of their victims with the eponymous pick (in the book it is the verb and not the noun, and the sole victim is strangled), but the map on the back is…sorta useless, since the environs of the strangulation are completely irrelevant, making them ill-suited to illustration. The book has other problems besides these, but quite what Dell thought they were selling would probably take a book of its own to explain.
There is, in McGerr’s group of men who establish the Society for the Uplift of Domestic Service (SUDS) to champion the housewife — “[E]ven women have more confidence in a setup that is conducted by men” — something of the archly satiric from the very first:
“We have one woman to represent the feminine viewpoint. It’s important to have her well over-balanced by men to prove that the organization will be operated on a sound business basis.”
This duality will be at the centre of most of the problems that dog the undertaking from its inception: a society promoting the nobility of the faithful, underappreciated wife whose (married) backer Paul Stetson has a well-known proclivity for making moves on any attractive woman in his orbit; a publicity department run by Chester Whipple, who is perhaps best interested in promoting himself; a champion for the cause on the West Coast in Loretta Knox who preaches temperance and is appalled to discover the drunken celebrations with which the SUDS staff greet most weekends; Ray Saunders being seen as crucial to the success of SUDS after a lifetime of running only failing concerns. Rot and corruption can be found at every turn, and the time spent watching it slowly inveigle its way into the undertaking is entertaining if never quite compelling.
We start, however, at the end of SUDS, with publicity man Pete Robbins deployed abroad in the war and receiving a torn scrap of newspaper which tells of Paul Stetson having killed one of the SUDS officers. The name of his victim is excised, however, and so Pete fills his Marine buddies in on his days at SUDS that they might place their bets and pick who they think the victim was. This framing — knowing a murder is on the way, but not who gets it — feels inspired until you realise that going into a murder mystery without first reading the synopsis usually produces the same result; and in most murder mysteries you don’t have to wait much past the halfway point for someone to die, whereas here there’s no investigation to occupy the second half and so it’s just story after story after story before the death comes with two chapters remaining.
In fairness to McGerr, I got about halfway through before this occurred to me, and she does a superb job of spreading around plenty of peril — a provocative letter here, someone pushed down steps maybe by accident there — so that the undercurrents are kept in mind. The office politics, too, are fascinating: figurehead president Hunter Willoughby is there purely for the “prestige and popularity”, and when Loretta Knox launches her own presidential bid (she’s supposed to be a horror, but goddamn I’d read ten books about Loretta Knox) the internal panic and manoeuvring she prompts is both ingenious and hilarious. Elsewhere Anne Coleman and Bertha Harding, vying for supremacy as the woman of SUDS, end up locked in a series of escalating encounters, the former also trying to guard against Stetson getting too interested in any other young things that come along, and setting plenty of chins wagging in the meantime.
“That’s the way with you women. A bachelor has only to look at an unmarried woman and you start smelling orange blossoms. You’d think you could keep personal gossip of of a business office.”
“The way men do, you mean?” said Sheila acidly.
The book is flawed in my view precisely because there’s none of what makes murder mysteries so interesting. The victim is supposedly chosen from one of ten candidates, but solidly four of them feature far too little to be viable options, the victim-to-be stood out to me at least half a mile despite some moderate obfuscation, and what supposedly passes for a clue that’s been dangled before us seems to come in rather too late and be rather too obscure to carry the convction it should. The fun of murder stories is in seeing events unpicked in a way that you had not imagined, and the lateness of any speculation on the part of Robbins’ brothers in arms fails to fulfil that expectation. There’s the germ of a great idea here, and some wonderful characters, but as a conceit the shortcomings are worn all too openly for it to convince as a complete triumph.
Compared to my only other experience with McGerr, Death in a Million Living Rooms, a.k.a. You’ll Die Laughing (1951), this retains the intrigue of an uncommon setting seen from the inside (governmental lobbying, the changing role of women in the public eye, the driving urge for profit above all things) but lacks the suspense of a well-structured narrative and so hangs around for long enough to become a little — just a little — tedious (and these Dell titles were abridged, too, weren’t they? Anyone know how much was typically cut?). For the unusual perspective she brings McGerr deserves your attention, but I have no doubt she wrote stronger books. I will continue to keep an eye out for her work, frustratingly OOP as she is, and look forward to writing more about her in future.
Kate@ CrossExaminingCrime: In some ways the extensive story from Pete is far more effective as a near satirical portrayal of American society at the time. The whole concept of SUDS is only taken seriously by the characters and even then mostly for the money they can garner from women subscribing to their publications on all things domestic. The way big business harnesses and exploits nationalism and societal values for monetary gain is a huge theme in this book, as is the way publicity is used for this end.
Rusty @ Justice for the Corpse: If McGerr had used the clues she constructed in a traditional mystery, it would have still been a good solid one, not only a well-constructed puzzle but an entertaining picture of office politics with a cast of well-drawn characters. The reverse angle lifts Pick Your Victim into the category of minor classic.
Noah @ Noah’s Archives: 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.