Authors: Horace McCoy

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

American novelist

Author Works

Long Fiction:

They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? 1935

No Pockets in a Shroud, 1937

I Should Have Stayed Home, 1938

Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, 1948

Scalpel, 1952

Corruption City, 1959


In 1946 a dispatch from Paris to The New York Times Book Review revealed a rather surprising aspect of the effect of American fiction on the Continent and in England: Horace McCoy was being “hailed as the peer of Steinbeck and Hemingway” and regarded as the first American existentialist. American writers and readers may well have asked, who is Horace McCoy that he should have made such an impact in Europe? In 1946 he was the nearly forgotten author of one of the best tough-guy novels of the 1930’s: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, a short, terse, first-person description of a dance marathon that ends in a mercy killing. His second novel, No Pockets in a Shroud, the violent story of a newspaperman’s attempt to expose crime in Dallas politics, first appeared in England and was published in the United States only in paperback (1948). While I Should Have Stayed Home, an account of the despairing lives of two Hollywood film extras, was published in the United States, it commanded little attention. McCoy’s fourth novel, Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, the violent tale of a Phi Beta Kappa scholar turned gangster, offered little to explain McCoy’s importance in Europe. His last novel, Scalpel, the story of a coal miner’s ruthless rise to riches as a surgeon, reveals qualities in McCoy’s fiction that may account for his appeal: violence, despair, frustration, and a compressed, vivid, muscular style. Corruption City, a screen treatment about a law professor’s crusade against organized crime that was published posthumously as a short novel, elaborates another theme that permeates McCoy’s fiction: the death of idealism in a corrupt world.{$I[AN]9810000076}{$I[A]McCoy, Horace[MacCoy, Horace]}{$I[geo]UNITED STATES;McCoy, Horace[MacCoy, Horace]}{$I[tim]1897;McCoy, Horace[MacCoy, Horace]}

One must go back to They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? to understand McCoy’s impact. In some ways it is a better example than James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) of the “pure” tough-guy novel; it is neither linked to the detective story, as are the hard-boiled novels of Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, nor is it similar to the tough-guy proletarian fiction of B. Traven. McCoy’s short novel projects in terms of a natural symbolism–the dance marathon–a universal image of modern humankind’s futile, Sisyphian labor. As an expression of existential outlook, it deserves comparison with Albert Camus’s L’ Étranger (1942; The Stranger, 1946).

McCoy started work as a newsboy when he was twelve. As a house-to-house salesman, he traveled the South. In New Orleans and Dallas, he drove a taxi. During World War I, he served as a pilot and was wounded in France. From 1922 to 1929, he worked as a reporter and sports editor on the Dallas Journal. McCoy also wrote for pulp fiction magazines in the 1920’s and 1930’s. Among these was Black Mask, which published seventeen of his short stories alongside tales by Hammett and Chandler between 1928 and 1934, and whose editor, Joseph Shaw, hailed McCoy’s works as integral to the evolution of the magazine’s school of hard-boiled writing. McCoy was one of the founders of the Dallas Little Theater. On periodic pilgrimages to Paris, he became acquainted with F. Scott Fitzgerald, began writing stories that were published in obscure literary magazines, and attracted the attention of anthologists such as Edward J. O’Brien.

After 1930 he wandered the California coast, picking vegetables and fruit in the Imperial and San Joaquin Valleys. He picketed in strikes and worked as a soda jerk, a bodyguard to a politician, a bouncer in a marathon dance contest, and a movie extra. Once he doubled for a sick wrestler. He began to write for the movies in 1933 when the gangster novels and films were making their strongest impact, and his screenplays were filmed by Nicholas Ray, Raoul Walsh, and other leading directors. Several of his own novels have been made into movies, most notably They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, which Sidney Pollack filmed in 1969.

BibliographyFine, David. “Beginning in the Thirties: The Los Angeles Fiction of James M. Cain and Horace McCoy.” In Los Angeles in Fiction, edited by David Fine. Albuquerque: University of New Mexico Press, 1984. A view of McCoy as a seminal writer of California fiction.Geherin, David. “Tough Guy Literature.” In American Novelists 1910-1945, edited by James J. Martine. Vol. 9 of The Dictionary of Literary Biography. Detroit: Gale, 1981. McCoy is discussed in the context of his fellow Black Mask writers.Nolan, William F. “Behind the Mask: Horace McCoy.” In The Black Mask Boys. New York: William Morrow, 1985. An accessible biocritical introduction to Horace McCoy.Nyman, Jopi. Hard-Boiled Fiction and Dark Romanticism. New York: P. Lang, 1998. Considers McCoy as a practitioner of noir fiction, along with Hammett, Hemingway, and Cain.Sturak, Thomas. “Horace McCoy, Captain Shaw, and the Black Mask.” In Mystery and Detection Annual, edited by Donald Adams. Beverley Hills, Calif.: Donald Adams, 1973. Provides an invaluable analysis of McCoy’s early pulp fiction.Sturak, Thomas. “Horace McCoy’s Objective Lyricism.” In Tough Guy Writers of the Thirties, edited by David Madden. Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 1968. Remains the single best study of McCoy’s writing.Winchell, Mark Royden. Horace McCoy. Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Press, 1982. The only full-length study published to date is this monograph of McCoy’s work. It focuses exclusively on McCoy’s novels.
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