They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?

by Horace McCoy

‘It’s peculiar to me,’ she said, ‘that everybody pays so much attention to living and so little to dying.’

Robert, a young man looking for fame and fortune as a Hollywood director, chances across a girl named Gloria, and he enters a marathon dance contest with her. Contestants get 10 minutes off their feet every two hours, otherwise they must dance continuously and the last couple standing wins. Over the next few weeks of the contest Robert gets to know Gloria and her sour, suicidal moods quite well.

Interspersed between the chapters detailing sections of the marathon dance are the worlds of a judge finding Robert guilty of shooting and killing Gloria, and we have 37 days of dance to figure out what happened.

The focus is on our two main dancers, but this kind of close proximity with so many couples for an extended time leads to struggles permeating the dance like infidelity, cheating, murder, and the Mother’s League for Good Morals. Despite nearly the entire novel taking place on the dance floor, the extremely short length (around 25,000 words) ensures the setting never wears thin. The doom of the judge’s proclamations against our narrator between the chapters keeps the story humming, and it’s over before you know it.

Here’s another excellent entry in the noir canon. Using the dance marathon as an exhaustive device sets an interesting landscape where the darkness doesn’t come from sex, lies, murder or revenge, but from two people getting to know each other.

‘—we throw ourselves on the mercy of the court. This boy admits killing the girl, but he was only doing her a personal favor—‘

4 stars


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