(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

To read a Patricia McGerr novel is to enter into an implausible world peopled with peculiar characters. Yet the reader who is willing to suspend disbelief, to leave real-life logic behind for the duration of the book, will find a realm of suspense, bafflement, and intellectual enchantment. Her characters and situations may not be true to life, but within the McGerr universe they function perfectly. McGerr was a consummate mistress of style, and she took risks with the mystery form that few other writers have dared to imitate.

Pick Your Victim

Pick Your Victim was a bravura start to McGerr’s career. Jacques Barzun and Wendell Hertig Taylor, who edited a series of the fifty greatest crime-fiction works written from 1900 to 1950, included McGerr’s first novel to stand among such classics as Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901-1902) and Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd (1926). According to Barzun’s preface to the book, McGerr devised a whole new mystery genre:Unlike any other detective tale on record, Pick Your Victim challenges attention by a double reversal, that of the standard problem and of its form. Here is a crime fully understood, in no way mysterious at the time and place of its occurrence, yet it tantalizes a group of people 3,000 miles away; and if this were not enough, the element unknown to the distant inquirers is not the criminal but the victim.

Dubbed a whodunin by several critics, the story develops through a frame narration. The year is 1944, and a group of soldiers stationed in the Aleutians are eager for any scraps of news from home. One of them, Davey Miller, receives a food package wrapped in newspaper shreds. The men devour the clippings as eagerly as they do the treats, even reading the fashion advertisements. Pete Robbins, the narrator of the tale, comes across one torn fragment dealing with a murder that has occurred at the Washington, D.C., office where he worked before being drafted. According to the truncated news story, Paul Stetson, managing director of the Society to Uplift Domestic Service (SUDS), admitted to strangling one of the other executive officers of the organization with a brown wool scarf. The newspaper is torn at a crucial point in the story, so the identity, even the gender, of the victim is a mystery. There were ten officers in the organization, seven men and three women, when Robbins left. Management by turmoil was the organization’s hallmark, and on any given day any two people might be sworn foes or best friends. Depending on how matters went on the day of the murder, any of the ten executives could have been the victim.

The soldiers decide to organize a betting pool on the victim’s identity, and Pete agrees to write to his girlfriend, Sheila, who will send him the information. It will take approximately two weeks for her answer to arrive, and for the next ten days, Pete, like Scheherazade, tells the tale of a different organization member, holding his audience spellbound with the byzantine inner workings of an outfit ostensibly dedicated to aiding American housewives and paid domestic help.

Founded by Bertha Harding as a newsletter of domestic tips for maids, the tiny organization was taken over by Paul Stetson, a venture capitalist who turned it into a nationwide chain of women’s clubs and a political organization that lobbies for various women’s interests. From an inexpensive mailing service for domestic workers, SUDS grew into a representative group for the five million or so upper-middle-class housewives who can afford to hire maids. The leadership of the organization was taken over by a group of men who agree that “it’s still a man’s world, and even women have more confidence in a setup that is conducted by men.” Bertha Harding, the founder, was relegated to a secretarial position, and Anne Coleman, Stetson’s mistress, became the only woman in the group with real power. Coleman’s queen-bee supremacy among the men became threatened, however, by Loretta Knox, an unpaid officer who had organized the West Coast contingent of SUDS and added temperance work to the SUDS agenda. The seven male officers vied with one another to be Stetson’s right hand, and each one secretly longed to dethrone Stetson, even though it was his money and organizational ability that had transformed the nickel-and-dime newsletter into a multimillion-dollar outfit.

The betting among the men changes with each new story Robbins tells, and when Sheila’s answer finally arrives, all the soldiers have picked their victim. A lucky few have chosen the right one, and oddly enough, the clue to the victim’s identity lies not in the Machiavellian infighting Robbins has described, but in Stetson’s choice of murder weapon. Pick Your Victim is delightfully plotted, and the reader’s interest is captivated not only by the murder but also by the bizarre people Robbins describes. McGerr’s characters may not be realistic, but they are certainly riveting.

The Seven Deadly Sisters

McGerr repeated her ingenious plotting in her second...

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