American crime writer Horace McCoy died from a heart attack at home in Hollywood 53 years ago today on December 15th, 1955. He was 58 years old and at the end of a career in which he had worked as a journalist, written screenplays, and several important crime novels. If he is remembered at all now it is for They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (Midnight classics), his 1935 novel set in a dance marathon during the Depression. Dance marathons attracted people who were desperate for money, for a bed for the night, or for the chance to ‘break into pictures’. They involved couples dancing continually for weeks on end, with only short breaks of a few minutes at a time. The rules dictated that couples had to keep moving at all times, to prevent them sleeping standing up, and there were further competitions every few hours in which races or talent shows were staged. The promoters of these side shows promised a great deal, but in reality the last couple standing took away very little in return for damaging their health and being ridiculed by the audiences who came to witness the spectacle. Other popular Depression-era stunts involved people being buried alive for long periods, with the promoter taking the bulk of the ticket money.
They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? brought McCoy a certain amount of fame, especially in France, where his bleak, existentialist outlook made him popular; he was known for a while as ‘The American existentialist’. The quality of his writing is generally high and though he was an inconsistent performer there is a distinctive McCoy style that is direct and muscular and yet also quite experimental and challenging in a narrative sense. His other novels, include No Pockets in a Shroud (Midnight Classics) (1938), a story about an investigative journalist going after the members of a Ku Klux Klan-like organisation. Like Horses, this novel also involves a narrator on the brink of being snuffed out. His most ambitious novel is Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (Midnight Classics) (1948), a story narrated by a highly persuasive and utterly ruthless serial killer. But Horses is deservedly considered his best work, if only for its directness and simplicity.
McCoy was a talented writer who never really lifted himself above his journeyman career as a script writer. It is possible that his day job, writing for Columbia, Paramount, and Warner Brothers, held back his novelistic ambitions. A longer biographical piece about McCoy is available on the website for my 100 American Crime Writers project. There will be more news about that book in the new year.