Pat McGerr: Pick Your Victim (1946)

Pick Your Victim is well-known to detective-story buffs as the mystery that’s written backwards – you know from the start who the murderer is, and you try to figure out who he killed. (I can say the killer’s a “he” without spoiling a thing!)

It’s 1944 and Pete Robbins, USMC, is stationed on a base in the Aleutians. If you know anything about the real history of that part of World War Two, you know that the greatest enemy of US troops stationed there wasn’t the Japanese, or even the cold, but sheer boredom; the US wrested the islands from Japan’s control in 1943, and nothing else of significance would happen there for the rest of the war. Pete and his fellow Marines have read and reread every item of printed matter available to them – and when one of their number receives a “care” package from home, they assemble the torn scraps of newspaper used as packing material into complete stories.

To Pete’s surprise, one of these scraps tells him that Paul Stetson, former managing director of the Society to Uplift Domestic Service, has been convicted of murdering another of the organization’s directors. SUDS, a Washington, DC-based non-profit, is where Pete worked before he enlisted, and of course he wants to know which of the other directors Stetson killed. Unfortunately, the part of the article with that information on it didn’t make it into the package.

With nothing else to do, the men decide to place bets on the identity of the victim, and over the coming days Pete tells them everything he can remember about his tenure at SUDS, about Stetson, and about the pool of possible victims. (This recounting amounts to over 90% of the book, in case you were anticipating a story of military life.) Not surprisingly, Stetson had some sort of grudge against each of them. Once Pete gets to the end of his recap, everybody makes a case for a different director being the corpse – but most of them are based on guesswork and intuition. A Marine named Joe Morris, on the other hand, puts together a convincing solution that ties everything together – and weeks later, a copy of the complete newspaper article arrives, confirming that Joe was right.

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. I wouldn’t mind reading more who-got-its, except how many ways are there for your characters to know who the killer is but not the victim? Not too many, I suspect.

11 thoughts on “Pat McGerr: Pick Your Victim (1946)

  1. Noah brought this one to my attention a little while back, and made me incredibly curious to read it. All you’ve done is make me even more curious — gaaah!

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  2. Very nicely put. I agree with you that “Pick Your Victim” is a great novel.

    One funny fact is that Ellery Queen were about to write a novel based on the same idea, but when they learned that McGerr had just written this novel, they had to scrap their own.

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    1. No kidding? I have read that another Queen novel had to be abandoned part way through because it was the same plot as Christie’s And Then There Were None, but this is new to me. Would have loved to see what Queen would have made of a who-got-it plot… as long as the clues weren’t the same as in McGerr’s (and what are the odds?), I’d have thought there’d be room for two such books.

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      1. Yeah. I’m not 100% certain where I read it, but I think it was in one of Jan Broberg’s prefaces either to one of his anthologies or to either this McGerr novel or an Ellery Queen novel. I can’t vouch for the correctness of the anecdote – it might be that Broberg got it mixed up with “And Then There Were None” – but I know that he specifically referred to this novel.

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      2. Finally found the quote. It was indeed in the preface to the Swedish edition of “Pick Your Victim”. Editor Jan Broberg quotes Pat McGerr herself (the preface is in Swedish, so I’m translating it back into English – the wording may differ from the original quote):

        “I met Ellery Queen a few years later, and he told me that there were times when he’d wanted to murder me… When my book was published Queen was halfway through a book with the very same idea!”

        In the preface Broberg also mentions that McGerr has two other novels which try to subvert the “normal” mystery novel. “The Seven Deadly Sisters”, which you mentioned, where both murderer and victim are unknown. Then there’s also “Catch Me If You Can” where the murderer needs to find out which of four persons are the detective…

        According to Broberg the ideas are cleverer than the novels themselves in these latter two cases.

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