Horace McCoy led a life so interesting it seems almost comic. He was a fighter pilot in WW1 (shot down and awarded the French equivalent of the Medal of Honor, of course). He was reputedly a pretty good actor and helped create a theater in Dallas. He wrote war and adventure tales as well as the noir stories and novels he’s known for; he edited a magazine; wrote for a Dallas newspaper; drove a cab; and was a travelling salesman—to name just a few of his many jobs. I wouldn’t be surprised if we one day find out he was also an OSS operative, the secret brain behind the A-Bomb and the men’s room attendant at The White House.
McCoy grew up near Nashville, but lived across the United States. He took his travel and varied experiences and dumped nearly all of them into his fiction. No Pockets in a Shroud is about a former newspaper writer who starts a new magazine while starring in a play and living in a house full of bohemians and failed artists—all things that McCoy did. His most famous novel, They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, was taken from his experience as a bouncer at a marathon dance contest. McCoy had trouble getting satisfying work in Hollywood, and he turned that into I Should Have Stayed Home, a novel about small-town dreams dashed in L.A.
The most clichéd piece of writing advice in history is write what you know. I’m not knocking this advice—a writer has to understand what he or she is writing about, because that’s where verisimilitude and gut-level authenticity come from. McCoy stitched together trailblazing crime novels using his own experience as a guide, and this authenticity is part of what makes his work so valuable.
This depth helps make McCoy’s main characters feel well-rounded and raises the quality of his work to a higher level. For example, McCoy makes sure that the theater in No Pockets plays a role both in both the plot and the theme. Mike Dolan’s fellow actors are important parts of the story, and the whole novel concerns truth and illusion. When Dolan quits the theater he is affirming his commitment to the truth he’s trying to tell in his corruption-busting magazine. A less daring writer wouldn’t risk devoting the pages to Dolan’s acting hobby, but McCoy makes it work.
McCoy’s understanding of his protagonists and their worlds enables him to focus on his writing. The first sentence of No Pockets in a Shroud kicks the novel into high gear and quickly introduces the main character, his personality, and the novel’s conflict:
When Dolan got the call to go up to the managing editor’s office he knew this was going to be the blow-off, and all the way upstairs he kept thinking what a shame it was that none of the newspapers had any guts anymore.
McCoy’s writing style is unique. The man loves long sentences, and he usually makes them work. The rhythm of his prose is the best part of McCoy’s novels. If you can get past the sporadic racism, homophobia, and, of course, sexism, then his novels are worth it for the beauty of his sentences.
They Shoot Horses begins just after Gloria’s suicide, and McCoy still brings lyricism to the scene:
The impact of the bullet had turned her head away from me; I did not have a perfect profile view, but I could see enough of her face and her lips to know she was smiling.
McCoy reached his stylistic peak with 1948’s Kiss Tomorrow Goodbye, one of the great American novels of the twentieth century. The opening lines show McCoy in full command of his language, and they are reminiscent in both style and content of the beginning of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time. Ralph Cotter says:
This is how it is when you wake up in the morning of the morning you have waited a lifetime for: there is no waking state. You are all at once wide awake, so wide awake that it seems you have slipped all the opiatic degrees of waking, that you have had none of the sense-impressions as your soul again returns to your body from wherever it has been; you open your eyes and you are completely awake, as if you had not been asleep at all.
As the novel progresses, Cotter’s narration becomes more strained when he’s stressed, and at times his words threaten to break into pieces. Tying the writing style to the main character’s mental state is a move McCoy brought from “literary” fiction into crime fiction.
Towards the end of No Pockets in a Shroud, Dolan is struggling with how far he’s going to expose city corruption. McCoy conveys Dolan’s mental state by stringing the words “sad” and “glad” together, without punctuation, over and over again. The resulting sentence (if that’s what you can call this) is both a visual and textual representation of Dolan’s struggle:
sad glad sad glad sad glad sad glad sad glad sad glad sad glad sad gladsadgladsadgladsadgladsadgladsadgladsadgladsad.
Jim Thompson may have perfected the art of a book brilliantly falling apart just as the protagonist falls apart, but he stole it from McCoy.
McCoy’s books are full of risks. He risks over-packing details into his protagonist and he risks writing something too strange for the average pulp reader, but these traits are what make McCoy a Hall-of-Famer. He may not have always created the most convincing characters (his minor characters, for example, tend to be very one-dimensional) and he was definitely prone to falling into the cultural biases of his day, but that doesn’t take away the sheer power of his sentences and the nerve of his novels.
Richard Z. Santos lives outside of Austin and is enrolled in the MFA program at Texas State University. Once, he worked in Washington, DC, but now he doesn’t do much more than write and teach. He blogs at Paperclip People, and is working on his first novel—a crime thriller set in New Mexico.