They Shoot Horses Don’t They by Horace McCoy

Originally Published 1935

The depression of the 1930s led people to desperate measures to survive. The marathon dance craze, which flourished at that time, seemed a simple way for people to earn extra money dancing the hours away for cash, for weeks at a time. But the underside of that craze was filled with a competition and violence unknown to most ballrooms.

They Shoot Horses Don’t They begins with a man being sentenced for committing the murder of a young woman. As we edge towards that sentence being given we hear the protagonist’s explanation that the woman wanted him to kill her and, following that first short chapter, we flash back to their first meeting and follow events towards that killing.

The protagonist, Robert Syverton, is an aspiring film director who is hoping to get noticed by someone to get his break in movies. He meets Gloria, an actress who seems to have missed her big chance in movies and who suggests entering a dance marathon contest in the hope of getting noticed by someone who might give their careers a helping hand.

The remainder of the book details the gruelling dance contest which reminded me a little of the pedestrian contest we see featured in the (much later) historical crime novel Wobble to Death. The idea is that it is an endurance contest in which the couples dance for an hour and a half, take a ten minute break, and then dance again. The contest lasts for weeks with couples being eliminated daily as the organizers attempt to drum up interest in their event, even concocting a gimmicky showpiece of a wedding to draw media attention.

While our protagonist and his dancing partner start off optimistically enough, her sour nature and pessimism become more apparent and she talks constantly about how she would be better off dead. There are no real surprises in how we get from there to the events we learn about at the start of the novella but I think that is acceptable in what is a very compact story. Instead the mystery within the novel relates to our need to understand how Robert changes from someone who is broadly optimistic about his future to the man we see on the pier at the end of the story.

You could make an argument that because we know Robert is a killer from the start of the novel that this is really an inverted crime novel and I certainly would not put up much resistance to that. I would say however that while it explores a series of events that lead to a murder, it is not a psychologically-focused work. We may draw inferences about Robert’s motivations but we learn little about the forces that have formed him prior to these events. In fact it takes a while before we even learn our protagonist’s name and beyond his ambitions, his backstory is largely ignored.

Nevertheless, Robert’s journey over the course of a little more than a hundred pages is interesting because, although the themes of the novel are punchy and clear, there remains at the end of the novella some points of ambiguity. And then there is the possibility that we are meant to ignore the events of the novel altogether and view it as a metaphor for the American experience. Is the dance contest not a contest at all but a stand-in for the American dream?

McCoy’s prose is punchy, salty and drives home its themes with brutality. One of the clever things he does is intersperse his chapters with short passages from the judge’s sentence, continually reminding us of where these events are headed. Those snippets of text are bold and enormous, giving them even more impact and I think this is one of the most interesting and effective layout decisions I have seen in a printed book.

He establishes the supporting characters with great economy, giving us a strong sense of the sort of people they are from the somewhat seedy organizers to Mrs Laydon, an older woman who takes an interest in Robert and Gloria and constantly remarks on how she wishes she could be out there. While the contest begins with optimism and a sense of enjoyment from some of the competitors we soon see tempers flare and any positivity and optimism drain from them as they wear themselves out on the dance floor.

The other smart decision McCoy makes is in relation to the work’s length. I have already mentioned that he writes in quite a punchy and economical style and that is reflected in the overall length of the piece too. The whole novella is a little over a hundred pages long and when you consider that a number of pages just have a few words printed on them the actual text probably makes up about ninety pages.

Given the bleak tone and the nature of the story, I think it could not have been a longer work. It would inevitably have to repeat ideas, explore characters in more detail or dilute its themes, any of which would have made this a less interesting and compelling work. McCoy’s story works because it is a blistering, uncomfortable experience that while sometimes a little heavy-handed, ultimately leaves the reader unsure about how they should feel. It stands out to me as one of the more interesting books I have read since starting this blog and it definitely has left me curious to explore more of the author’s work.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: An animal in the title (What)

9 thoughts on “They Shoot Horses Don’t They by Horace McCoy

      1. That Hopper is not dull! It is disquieting. And it fits Postman. A splendid collection, with one one weakfish entry (TLU). Nightmare Alley and The Postman Always Rings Twice are the standouts.


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