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Though better known in it's somewhat milder film version, this is a brisk, brutal crime novel in which a Depression dance marathon becomes a metaphor for the harsh and unrelenting grind of real life.  Couple #22, Robert Syverton and Gloria Beatty, have come to Hollywood to break into the movie business, but having had no luck, end up in a spectacle that's like something out of the Roman Coliseum.

By novel's end the couples have been dancing for almost 900 hours, with only a ten minute break every two hours.  The 144 couples who started have dwindled down to twenty.  Many dropped out early, but many more have been eliminated in the frantic derby races that were instituted to draw in crowds.  When dancers merely pass out, which they frequently do, they are awakened with smelling salts or ice baths and pushed right back onto the floor.  But times are so bad that Robert has actually put on five pounds during the ordeal--meals are supplied for free--and most of the other contestants have gained weight too.

He's content to keep going, hoping that he'll be "discovered" by one of the film world glitterati attending the marathon or that he can use the prize money to direct a picture of his own.  But Gloria is completely fatalistic :

    This whole business is a merry-go-round.  When we get out of here we're right back where we

She tries convincing one of the other dancers, who is pregnant, to get an abortion, for the good of the baby, and she continually tells Robert that she wishes she were dead.  Suffice it to say she gets her wish.

We tend to want to view our grandparents as having led sheltered lives, unaware of all the oh-so-tough realities that we face so honestly today.  This almost sadistically frank pulp fiction from 1935 will cure anyone of the delusion that earlier generations didn't know the score.  With murder, incest, abortion, and the like generously added to a plot about people entertaining themselves by watching the misery of others, it's like one of these eliminationist "reality" television shows (Survivor, Big Brother, etc.) as conceived by the creative team of Thomas Hobbes and Charles Darwin.  These lives are indeed nasty, brutish, and short.  It doesn't make for a pretty story, but you have to admire the zeal and energy with which Horace McCoy drives his point home.


Grade: (B+)


See also:

Book-related and General Links:
    -Horace McCoy  (1897-1955)  (Kirjasto)
    -EXCERPT : from THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY? by Horace McCoy
    -MCCOY, HORACE STANLEY (1897-1955) (Handbook of Texas Online)
    -Horace McCoy (Tangled Web)
    -ESSAY : The Real Survivors (Bill Van Dyk, Rant of the Week)
    -ESSAY : THE WAY WE WERE :Los Angeles night spots in the late 1950s-'60s (Fred Schruers,  Los Angeles Magazine, August, 1999)
    -REVIEW : of No Pockets in a Shroud by Horace McCoy (Jon Mitchell, Richmond Review)
    -REVIEW : of I Should Have Stayed Home by Horace McCoy (Carlo McCormick, HotWired)
    -REVIEW : of Library of America Crime Novels (Terry Teachout, National Review)

    -FILMOGRAPHY : Horace McCoy (
    -INFO : They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969) (Imdb)
    -INFO : They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969) (Rotten Tomatoes)
    -BUY IT : They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (1969) DVD (Amazon)
    -REVIEW : of They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (Images Journal)
    -REVIEW : of THEY SHOOT HORSES, DON'T THEY? (1969) (Josh's Movie Reviews)
    -REVIEW : of They Shoot Horses, Don't They?  ( El Topo, Inside Out Film)
    -REVIEW :    of They Shoot Horses, Don't They?  (Movie Magazine International, Monica Sullivan)
    -REVIEW : of They Shoot Horses ( Ross Klatt, Two Guys Who Like Movies)
    -DVD REVIEW : of They Shoot Horses, Don't They?  (Mark Zimmer, Digitally Obsessed)
    -DVD REVIEW : of They Shoot Horses, Don't They? (Jarod Musgrave , DVD File)
    -REVIEW: They Shoot Horses, Don’t They? (Joel Copling, Spectrum Culture)

-ESSAY : AMERICAN FILM NOIR (= "black cinema") (Peak period mid-1940s through mid 1950s)
    -ESSAY: Dance marathons were a seedy, exploitative Bay Area craze that SF's women helped stop (Greg Keraghosian, April 11, 2021, SF Gate)