Pick Your Victim (1946) by Patricia McGerr

A US marines unit is a setting first for me and Aleutians, 1944, is the book’s overarching location, not that we find out much about it. But more anon. Violence and weapons are not the opening gambit though, rather it is an assault against the ‘Great Battle of Boredom.’ Reading material is at a premium, scraps of newspaper to pad out parcels are devoured within minutes by bored recruits. Yet one such scrap reveals a startling piece of information for our narrator, Pete Robbins, who realises that a murder has taken place at SUDS, (Society to Uplift Domestic Service), where he used to work. The scrap says that Paul Stetson, his former boss, admits to the killing, but the killing of who? And here of course is where the story’s title comes in to play… The newspaper extract is torn in such a way that only a few words or partial words remain. None of which indicate who was killed, though Pete narrows it down to the 10 key figures at the office. The regiment decide to hear about each person and then pick who they think is the likely one to be the corpse, all in the form of a lottery sweepstake. The majority of the rest of the book barring about 25 pages is Pete’s narrative of his four years of employment at SUDS, charting the tensions, jealousies, rivalries and mutinies which slowly and then increasingly build up. Within our potential victims list we have a thwarted mistress, an old school friend who wants to do more than milk his chum, there’s possible blackmail, affairs and a keen teetotaller, determined to use the company for their own political ends.

Overall Thoughts

As you can see this book plays around with an extreme form of withheld victim identity, the name only being revealed on the final page. This is certainly an unusual premise for a mystery novel to take, given the priority usually bestowed on the suspects. In a way you can see this book as the ultimate exercise in armchair sleuthing, as all the characters have to go on is Pete’s narrative on the personalities involved and the newspaper clipping. It sort of reminded me of Christie’s Cards on the Table  (1936) and in fact we do get a blow by blow account of a bridge game Stetson has with others in the company. Five Little Pigs  (1942) also came to mind when it came to the old school friend, who has been scrounging off Stetson ever since Stetson threw a paperweight unintentionally at him at school, an accident which lost that friend one of his eyes. The sense of an ungoverned temper, which is guilt tripped afterwards sprung to mind and I did wonder if it would be a part of the final solution.

So how effective is the setup? I have to admit that it is a flawed piece, despite the interesting opening concept. My main issue was that rather than having Pete’s narrative interspersed by conversation with his friends in the present day, it was one long piece of prose, which was reminiscent in structure of a Georgette Heyer novel. It chronologically itemises all the brewing fights within the organisation, almost making the reader wait for someone to be killed. Yet of course that is not going to happen, as the death has already occurred and Pete’s story will not directly touch on it. Consequently I feel the book loses its experimental flavour and that the uninterrupted narrative reduces the impetus to solve the mystery as an armchair sleuth. Interspersed conversations as I say, would have arguably upped the ratiocination element of it all, in my opinion of course. Only last week JJ was articulating his difficulties with stories that involve diary formats, feeling that the prose contained within is too neat, orderly and overly detailed to be a realistic diary. Now this is not an issue I have, rather enjoying such typographical novelty, yet I found in this story I was coming up against a similar problem, finding Pete’s account unbelievably detailed. It didn’t bug me all the time, but it did crop up from time to time. The final section back at the marine camp was enjoyable in bringing a different tone and there is some enjoyable humour, but I found the ending a little limp. The solution is plausible but it lacked a little impact for me.

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. Gerr presents a very different setup from something like Sayers’ Murder Must Advertise (1933), but the publicity milieu is equally well conceived and I think the author captures the group dynamics very well. Even on the very first page we have Pete so desperate for reading material that he will read a lady’s fashion advert, though the words for it seem to be loaded with humour in my opinion:

‘I was handed a piece of a dress ad which informed me that a lady’s “heart collection” would grow by leaps and bounds if she stepped out in the latest all sequin dance dress with tiny waist and pencil slim skirt. (Sizes 12-20, available in black, silver and aquamarine.) Unfortunately, the drawing was torn below the waist, so I was left in the dark as to the “heart-shaped bodice.”’

So this book is not a complete success, but is an unusual oddity to sample if you can come across it cheaply.

Rating: 4/5

Just the Facts Ma’am (Gold Card): Death by Strangulation

Calendar of Crime: May (9) Military Figure or Mother has a Major Role

P. S. I was slightly bemused when one of the characters says that: ‘Paul made quite a name for himself playing football […] so he was offered a job in Wall Street.’ Were/are people really given important jobs because they’re good at football in America? Or is this another joke?

20 comments

  1. Well, this one is a blast from the past. Pick Your Victim was the first mystery novel I tackled on my blog and, on a whole, I liked it a little bit more than you did, but a 4/5 is very fair.

    You’ll probably love McGerr’s The Seven Deadly Sisters, which takes a similar approach as Pick Your Victim, but (if I remember correctly) slightly better executed. A woman receives a hastily written letter that her aunt has committed suicide after having poisoned her husband, but she has seven aunts and the writer didn’t mention any names. So she goes over her entire family history with her husband who deduces the truth. You’ll like it.

    Good to see that The Clock in the Hatbox is next on your list! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

    • That is a very fitting book for your first blog post, given how much you delve into the obscure. You have tempted me with your synopsis of the other book. I am a sucker for a story within a story. Thankfully found a cheap copy, though the cover art is the sort of nightmares or at the very least gives a horror type of vibe to it (despite the plot not doing so!). Its the same with PYV for that matter – the cover artists seem to have been keen to inject a gothic horror factor which is just not their in the book.
      Looking forward to my next read. Hope it will be a stronger outing than my last with Gilbert.

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      • Update: Hopes of getting a cheap copy of TSDS has been somewhat dashed as seller has refunded my order, having sold the book in 2016. Why it was still on their active listings page I do not know…

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      • That is a very fitting book for your first blog post, given how much you delve into the obscure.

        Yes, it really was an appetizer of what was to come. Hopefully, you’ll have better luck with getting The Seven Deadly Sisters on your second try, which, by the way, can hardly be described as Gothic. Going by my memory and skimming through my old review, it’s more along the lines of daytime soap opera, following the ups and downs of the characters over a long period of time, but with a who-will-be-done-in-and-by-whom running as a red thread through the plot. Something that was very well done.

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  2. That cover makes PYV look like a Gothic mystery, which it definitely is not! I used to have copies of some Asey Mayo mysteries with similar (and equally inappropriate) covers.

    I think the logic of the “football” reference was, “Paul made quite a name for himself playing football, which opened a lot of doors for him, and one of the contacts he made offered him a job on Wall Street.”

    Liked by 1 person

  3. This does sound like an interesting idea. The inverted/withheld victim blend is unusual but not entirely unheard of but I think the reason for its rarity lies in some of the problems you point to with this one – it is hard to credibly put forward multiple possible victims and sustain that to the last page. The themes you describe sound interesting though so I do plan to see if I can seek out a copy!

    On Mon, Feb 11, 2019 at 4:03 PM crossexaminingcrime wrote:

    > armchairreviewer posted: “A US marines unit is a setting first for me and > Aleutians, 1944, is the book’s overarching location, not that we find out > much about it. But more anon. Violence and weapons are not the opening > gambit though, rather it is an assault against the ‘Great Batt” >

    Liked by 2 people

    • Yeah withholding the killer’s identity understandably does not lessen the detection element, but withholding the victim’s identity and in particular going back in time before the murder, makes it harder to sustain the sleuthing element. You might get lucky finding a cheap copy, as most of the copies online seem to be residing in America. At least you wouldn’t have to pay the silly postage prices.

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  4. Had an eye out for this and The Seven Deadly Sister for a while now — Noah put me onto them, and I’m yet to track either down. It’s a principle that is obviously riddled with potential for flaws — much like Leo Bruce’s Case Without a Corpse (1936) — but I’m still very curious to try it. One of these days…

    Liked by 1 person

    • Yes I think I got lucky finding my copy for under a fiver. It is a bit fragile though. £16.05 seems to be the cheapest copy of this book at the moment, though there is a copy of TSDS knocking about on Abebooks for a tenner. I can always bring my copies of the books down in June if you would like to borrow them. Case Without a Corpse is also one of the Beef titles I need to get as well. The race is on…

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  5. I read a review of this nearly a year ago and it drew my excitement, although your review tempers that a bit. You raise a reasonable point – can you really sustain an entire novel based purely on the mystery of who was the victim? Apparently not.

    I’ve been keeping an eye out for the Dell map back edition of this book – excellent cover, plus who can resist a map back.

    Liked by 2 people

  6. I read this some fifty years ago, intrigued at the structural premise to which I was alerted by an entry in CATALOG OF CRIME. (Even then my rule of thumb was that if Barzun liked a book I wouldn’t, and vice versa, but as I recall the CofC entry was favorable and I made an exception for it. And I remember pretty much liking it.)

    I’ve read a couple of other mysteries since with a “the surprise ending reveals who the victim was” idea; one by I think Michael Innes (and if so, I forget which one), and one by Anthony Berkeley (MURDER IN THE BASEMENT).

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