(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Originally titled “Marathon Dance,” They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? grew out of Horace McCoy’s harsh experiences in Hollywood during the worst days of the Great Depression, when some twenty thousand extras were reportedly unemployed. McCoy centers his narrative on Robert Syverten and Gloria Beatty, two Hollywood hopefuls who are forced by poverty to become partners in a grueling marathon dance contest held in a dance hall on a Santa Monica pier.

As is typical of most 1930’s noir fiction, the novel employs a flashback structure, with narrator Robert Syverten recounting the events that led up to his murdering Gloria Beatty, an act for which he is in the process of being sentenced to death. As Syverten recalls, he and Beatty met by accident when he mistook her waving for a bus as a greeting directed at him. Beatty suggests that the two of them enter a marathon dance contest, which provides free food and sleeping accomodations to contestants and a thousand dollars if they win. The contest also affords valuable public exposure, as dance marathons are often attended by Hollywood producers and directors. Though he is still weak from intestinal flu, Syverten agrees to join the contest as Beatty’s partner. Ironically, he proves the stronger of the two, especially during the derbies: nightly races held to generate excitement and eliminate contestants more efficiently than the marathon itself (the couple finishing last every night is...

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(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

Durham, Philip. “The Black Mask School.” In The Mystery Writer’s Art, edited by Francis M. Nevins. Bowling Green, Ohio: Bowling Green University Popular Press, 1970. Focuses on McCoy’s stylistic similarities to other writers who contributed to H. L. Menken’s Black Mask magazine.

Kutt, Inge. “Horace McCoy.” In Dictionary of Literary Biography: American Novelists, 1910-1945. Vol. 9. Detroit: Gale Research, 1981. A survey of McCoy’s life and work, focusing almost exclusively on McCoy’s five novels (McCoy also wrote or cowrote thirty-two Hollywood screenplays between 1936 and 1955).

Sturak, Thomas. “Horace McCoy’s Objective Lyricism.” In Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties, edited by David Madden. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1979. A stylistic analysis of McCoy’s fiction, with particular attention paid to They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?