#803: Pick Your Victim (1946) by Pat McGerr [a.p.a. by Patricia McGerr]

Pick Your Victim

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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.

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See also

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.

15 thoughts on “#803: Pick Your Victim (1946) by Pat McGerr [a.p.a. by Patricia McGerr]

  1. “…the sole victim is strangled…”

    How ironic. I was hoping the killer would be gutting some of the victims with a pick-ax, but it turns out I am the one who is gutted, gutted by Dell’s lies.

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    • Yes, I have seen some odd covers in my time, but the fact that Dell commissioned this one when it bears not even the vaguest relation to the contents of the book is somewhat bizarre. I don’t know if this is better or worse than a cover somehow spoiling an element of the plot, but it’s damn weird all the same.

      The only sane response is to write a serial killer novel called Welcome to the Club in which several people are battered to death….

      Liked by 1 person

      • As much as I love the maps on the back of these Dell books, the covers are usually just as good. You have the super accurate (Through a Glass Darkly), those that capture the essence (Hag’s Nook), the abstract (Rim of the Pit), and then the wacky (Pick Your Victim). You have to love the wacky.

        The maps tend to be really nicely done. I recall Death From a Top Hat nailing every fine detail at the murder scene down to the books on the shelves, while Sad Cyprus and Footprints on the Ceiling provided a nice understanding of the layout of the setting. Even if those details didn’t really matter, it’s nice to have a visual confirmation. But then, yeah, there are maps like The Case of the Seven Sneezes (and apparently Pick Your Victim, based on your comment) where the map doesn’t really accomplish anything. Still fun to have though.

        Liked by 2 people

        • I always imagined that Dell would have chosen books to be mapbacks based on the intricacy of the scene they could represent — as in Death from a Top Hat, like you say. And maybe they did, and maybe they ran out of titles where that was possible and os had to go with something that benefitted not one jot from a map of a generic offic layout being put on the back,, but if that were the case then I like to think this would be Dell #23,496 rather than the #305 or similar that it is.

          But then, plenty of book contain useless maps and floorplans — The Greek Coffin Mystery being prime offender there — so, I guess, why shouldn’t Dell have a few duff efforts?

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          • “I always imagined that Dell would have chosen books to be map backs based on the intricacy of the scene they could represent”

            I like to think that too, but I assume we’re both horribly naive. In reality this was probably just whatever mysteries Dell was putting out at the time they were doing the map back brand – there are a ton of westerns and romance novels as well (got to have a map with my romance, ya know).

            But yeah, you have to appreciate the thought and attention to detail that went into some of these maps. The artist obviously had read the book, and they had to have done some really in depth study of some of the scenes – see my example of Death From a Top Hat, where they capture the position of every piece of furniture, the art on the walls, the carpet, etc. Or the cover of Through a Glass Darkly where the characters are wearing the exact pieces of clothes described in the key scene. I’m speaking with nothing really tangible to back it up, but it feels like more modern releases slap some very general art on the cover and call it a day.

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            • …which only makes int more unfortunate that were only having this discussion because of a terrible example of the cover artists’ skill.

              Man, I wish more artists had gotten back to me when I was trying to develop that Cover Stars series of posts. There’s so much I’d love to hear from people who do this kind of thing well.

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  2. Well, I have to say: your last post prompted Byrnside to comment on this book, which prompted me to travel to eBay and search around for McGerr’s work, which sent me to Recycle Books and Feldman’s books, which led to me adding nine or ten times to the Tower of Bradley. The only good news is that, as expected, I couldn’t find any McGerr. Now I’m not sure whether to go back and buy The Seven Weird Sisters on eBay.

    Oh, and I figure that, between you and Byrnside, you owe me $51.36.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. “in most murder mysteries you don’t have to wait much past the halfway point for someone to die.

    That’s such a funny observation, and it seems obvious now that you make it. I recall reading my first review of this and thinking “oh, that’s a clever twist”, but yeah, when you put it that way…

    And of course think of those books where you do have to wait that eternity to the halfway point for the actual crime to occur (I’m looking at you Sealed Room Murder). Sure, an author can do a fine job at building up to the murder, but I’ve always found myself partial to the story kicking off with the murder having already happened or happening almost immediately.

    With that said, there are books that I read where there’s actually a bit of mystery as to who is going to get killed. I’m grasping to come up with a good example of that now, and I’m sure I’ll be kicking myself later. It’s not necessarily that there’s a massive shock, but it’s more of a pleasant surprise. And I’d always like to preserve that surprise for readers, and so I end up reviewing the story like “someone gets killed, but I can’t tell you who or how”, which always feels weird given the context of a mystery blog post. Anyway, now I’ve got to go and think of some examples of unexpected deaths.

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    • Some to get you started:

      I remember some of the (very, very expected) deaths in And Then There Were None taking me completely by surprise…but then that’s much more a horror novel than a strict piece of crime writing.

      The second death in The Footprints of Satan took me completely by surprise, but then that book had a particular effect on me where I was so caught up I failed ot look ahead. Goddamn, those were a wonderful few days.

      One of the deaths in Byrnside’s Goodnight Irene came as a complete shock, too, but I don’t think you’ve read that and so I shall not spoil anything.

      Oh, and Sparkling Cyanide! They’re all sat around the table on the anniversary of her murder, replicating the circumstances, and you just know that somsone is for it when the lights go down…but I remember my complete and utter delight at the identity of the corpse. I’m sure Brad’ll tell me it was obvious in advance, but I don’t care.

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      • It’s a bit different when there are additional murders in a book, as those become open season on the cast (Death Comes as the End being a good example with some surprises). Unless, of course, it’s one of those “I know who committed the murder, announced it in front of the rest of the suspects, and then went off to bed for the night alone” jobs. Not that any author would ever try that…

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  4. Pingback: Pat McGerr (1917 – 1985) – A Crime is Afoot

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