Horace McCoy, along with James M. Cain and a few other authors of the ‘20s, ‘30s & ‘40s, was labeled early on as a hardboiled author, in the same vein as Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett and others. But, in retrospect, most of his novels didn’t fit the classic description of hardboiled.
First, they weren’t detective novels. Secondly, the main protagonists were not mainly dealing with solving a mystery and often the main characters were flawed, and if not totally beyond redemption, at least of questionable character. Of course, now these writers are most identified with the ‘Noir’ genre; the ‘roman noir’ or “dark books’ as they would finally be labeled after many of them were made into film noirs of the ‘40s and ‘50s.
Reissued in April by Open Road Media, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?
is McCoy’s best-known novel, perhaps because of the Academy Award-nominated film made from it (it won one Oscar for Gig Young as supporting actor, and was nominated in eight other categories, including best director- Sydney Pollack and best actress – Jane Fonda) starring Michael Sarrazin and Jane Fonda.
The story opens up with the narrator and protagonist confessing to murder, thus quickly shedding any aspirations to a mystery. He confesses that he “killed her,” and that he doesn’t “have a leg to stand on” alluding to the title of the book. In his youth, he saw the favorite family horse break its leg, after which it was shot and put out of its misery, also leading to the conclusion as well as the title.
The main characters are Robert Syverten, who came to Hollywood with dreams of becoming a great director, and Gloria Beatty who ran away to Dallas from a farm in West Texas where her uncle always made passes at her. In Dallas, she tried to commit suicide, then ran away to Hollywood with dreams of being in movies, but is finding only rejection. The pair meet on the morning when they have both failed to get parts as extras.
The setting for the novel is in the shabby La Monica Ballroom, perched over the Pacific Ocean on the Santa Monica Pier, near Los Angeles. Gloria talks Robert into participating and entering a marathon dance contest, believing the contest may be a way to get noticed by studio producers or movie stars. The novel was written in 1935, at the height of the dance marathon craze. Dance endurance contests attracted people to compete to achieve a type of cheap celebrity or monetary prizes. McCoy, whose life story very much resembled Roberts, had briefly worked as a bouncer at contest just like this in California.
The book also differs from the majority of hardboiled books of the era in that the plot is nonlinear, being told back to front, with additional flash-back scenes that reveal the characters’ back story and histories. From the start we know that Robert killed Gloria and the plot reveals why.
Further, the flashback scenes show Robert witnessing the shooting of the family’s pet horse and how that affected him, his hopes and dreams of becoming a great film director, and the failure he feels in just hanging on and accepting bit parts. There’s also Gloria’s life with the lecherous uncle, her despair in trying to make it as a single girl at the height of the depression and why she tried to kill herself in Dallas before coming to Hollywood to become a movie star.Hardly classic hardboiled.
All of this reveals why Gloria, from the start has a fatal outlook for her future, and maybe everyone’s future. From the start, Gloria tells Robert that she wishes she were dead, a point she repeats in most of their conversations. She also feels she has had to resort to unsavory acts, one of which will come out later in the dance contest, just to survive. One hundred and forty four couples start the contest. Robert and Gloria, like most of the contestants, are young, jobless, and drawn as much by the free food as by the $1,000 prize money (raised to the ‘princely sum of $1,500 in the movie).