Invisible Ink: No 90 - Horace McCoy

Malcolm Gladwell's rule states that the key to success in any field is partly a matter of practising the task for around 10,000 hours.

This seems especially true of writers; it usually takes a great deal of experience to become a debut novelist. Horace McCoy clocked up a lot of experience before writing the book for which he is most remembered.

He followed a path now familiar to readers of this column. Born in 1897, he became a bombardier in the First World War, was wounded, and received the Croix de Guerre for heroism from the French government. He had a variety of professions – sports editor, actor, journalist and writer of pulp westerns. The Great Depression saw him picking lettuce and working as a bouncer before tackling screenwriting and crime novels. He was also a script assistant on King Kong.

His best novel was inspired by his days working on Santa Monica pier. They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is a typographically innovative drama with an astonishing opening scene in which the hero casually admits to killing the girl he loves. A heartbreaking existentialist fable about a gruelling marathon dance contest, in which couples must stay on their feet for a cash prize, it's also a study of the abnormal psychology that gripped California in the depression years. The meaning of the title quickly becomes clear as the tale assumes the weight of Greek tragedy.

Understandably, America didn't take to the book at first, but the French recognized it as a masterpiece. A one-sitting read at just 125 pages, it's a masterclass in succinct writing that could teach lessons in brevity to many current writers. "There can only be one winner, folks," says Gig Young, the unctuous MC in Sydney Pollack's excellent film version, "but isn't that the American way?" Jane Fonda was Oscar-nominated for her role in the movie, that was released in 1969, 14 years after McCoy's death.

McCoy also wrote the bleak, amoral Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye (filmed with James Cagney) about a career criminal who is less corrupt that the local police. Two other novels bear mention. I Should've Stayed Home concerns jobless movie extras in sleazy 1930s Hollywood, and No Pockets In a Shroud is about a reporter failing in his fight against corruption.

McCoy's books have aged well. They are finally returning to visibility, thanks to publishers such as Serpent's Tail and Blackmask.

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