From Casual Debris.
A minor anecdote in history, the marathon dances of the 1930s, proves to be an appropriate setting through for examining the individual's place in the world. Having worked in such a setting, Horace McCoy makes vivid not only the torturous experiences of the event, but helps to illustrate the desperate reality of suffering during the Great Depression, as people storm to the humiliating dances in order to obtain bed and food, to seek the illusive fame and fortune of Hollywood, or simply to get away from a bleak day-to-day existence. Yet even the era of the Depression is secondary to the individual's inability to make a place for oneself in the absurd world in which we live.
The novel focuses on a passive and naive young man who aspires to become a film director, and a pessimistic and aimless runaway, who are trying to earn jobs as extras in Hollywood productions. Gloria convinces Robert Sylverton to enter a dance marathon starting up on the waterfront, and the unlikely duo join up. The rest of the novel is a fast-paced view of the inner workings of the event as we follow the pair through the various trials, physical and emotional, of the event.
Aside from the vivid portrayal of the reality of the event, author Horace McCoy equates the futile and desperate struggle of the marathon event with the equally futile struggle of daily life. The world is likened to a merry-go-round, and Gloria stresses that there is no purpose in what we choose: where we get on is where we get off. Moreover, a strong connection is made between people and horses. In the marathon people suffer through the ordeal of the derby, where dancers must rush around an oval track, much as merry-go-round horses rotate in an unending circle. People just like horses must work hard and often suffer for their livelihood, and in essence their fate is the same, illustrated with the shooting of Gloria as it is contrasted with the shooting of horses. The life of man and the life of beast are equally irrelevant. Like horses we are forced to perform for a master and when we are no longer useful we are put down. Additional comments are cleverly inserted by McCoy to elevate this comparison, such as Robert's comment "I didn't have a leg to stand on," implying that that when a horse breaks a leg it must be shot dead.
They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is an innovative crime novel whose genre is seemingly incidental. The murder element is not the focus of the plot, and the plot is progressed by it only structurally. We know from the start who did it and what he did do; the mystery lies in the why. Though the novel fits the categories of crime fiction and its later descriptor, noir fiction, because its focus on character and situation trumps the criminal element, it stands out. The killing itself is also different: a mercy killing with no gain for the killer; the criminal is sympathetic and driven by sleep deprivation, not villainy. He is essentially an incidental murderer.