They Shoot Horses, Don't They? is a 1935 novel by Horace McCoy about the participants in a gruelling dance marathon during The Great Depression.
As the novel opens, the narrator, would-be director Robert Syverten, is being sentenced for the murder of Gloria Beatty. In a series of flashbacks, we learn that Robert and Gloria met in Hollywood after auditioning as extras for the same film; when they are turned down, Gloria suggests to Robert that they participate in a dance marathon at a rundown oceanside ballroom in Los Angeles. The rules of the marathon are simple: the dancers dance round the clock apart from ten minute breaks every two hours, and the last couple standing receives a $1,000 cash prize. The 144 participating couples, suffering from the poverty and desperation of the Depression, are drawn almost as much by the free food as by the cash prize.
The promoters of the marathon engage in various schemes to spark audience interest: a contestant is arrested for murder, two contestants are married on the dance floor, and nightly "derbies" are held in which the remaining dancers compete in a race around the perimeter of the ballroom, with the last couple automatically eliminated from the marathon. As the audiences grow, some of the contestants (including Robert and Gloria) are sponsored by local businesses, who give them clothes promoting their merchandise to wear during the marathon.
However, as the marathon continues to drag on, couples break down physically and are forced to drop out. After 879 hours (just over five weeks), with twenty couples remaining, there is a shooting in the bar of the ballroom (Mrs. Laydon, the widow who obtained Robert and Gloria's sponsorship, is killed by a stray bullet), and the marathon is shut down, with the prize money split between the twenty couples ($50 each). Gloria, who has spent the marathon repeatedly telling Robert that she wishes she were dead, takes a pistol out of her purse and, admitting she lacks the courage to shoot herself, asks Robert to do it for her; he complies, and as the police arrest him and ask him why he shot her, he thinks back to seeing his grandfather put a wounded horse out of its misery and answers, "They shoot horses, don't they?"
The novel was adapted into a film of the same name in 1969.
This novel provides examples of the following tropes:
- Broken Bird: Gloria is a poster child for this. Her Dark and Troubled Past and failed acting career have left her bitter and cynical, unafraid to vent her anger at the world and everyone in it to anyone within earshot.
- Bungled Suicide: Gloria tried to poison herself, but she didn't take enough, and only ended up in the hospital.
- Casting Couch:
- After first meeting Robert and talking about the difficulty in breaking into the movies, Gloria mentions that female stars might be in more of a position to help her than male ones, adding, "I've about made up my mind that I've been letting the wrong sex try to make me."
- Robert eventually learns that Gloria has been having sex with one of the marathon promoters in a bid to improve their chances of being declared the winners.
- Crapsack World: As heavy as the toll the dance marathon takes on its contestants may be, they are trying to escape from the world outside it, a world without jobs, money, or, seemingly, hope. And even the world inside the dance hall is shattered by a stray bullet, throwing its inhabitants back into the path of the Great Depression with only $50 for their weeks of effort.
- Dark and Troubled Past: Gloria tells Robert that her parents died when she was young, and she was sent to live on her uncle's farm in western Texas. When her uncle began showing an unhealthy sexual interest in her, she fled to Dallas and tried to commit suicide. She then made her way to Hollywood in the hope of becoming an actress, but has met with rejection everywhere she has gone.
- Downer Ending: The dance marathon is forcibly shut down after a murder takes place in the ballroom, and a despondent Gloria asks Robert to kill her. When he obliges, he is arrested and sentenced to death.
- First-Person Perspective: Robert acts as narrator for the story.
- Foregone Conclusion: Since the book opens with Robert on trial for Gloria's murder, we know that it will occur at some point during the flashbacks.
- Go Out with a Smile: Robert recalls Gloria's expression as she dies."She was relaxed and comfortable and she was smiling. It was the first time I had ever seen her smile."
- Horrible Hollywood: The film industry has not been kind to Gloria and Robert's ambitions; apparently, no-one is interested in the possible talents of either.
- How We Got Here: The book opens with Robert being sentenced for Gloria's murder; the rest of the book tells the story of the events that led to him shooting her.
- I Cannot Self-Terminate: Although Gloria has the gun she needs to kill herself, she doesn't have the courage to go through with it, and asks Robert to kill her instead.
- In Medias Res: Robert's flashbacks to the events that led up to Gloria's murder are interspersed with quotes from his sentencing by the judge at his trial.
- Making Love in All the Wrong Places: Robert and an unnamed female contestant attempt to do this underneath the band platform during a rest break, only to find another couple (who turn out to be Rocky and Gloria) are already so occupied.
- Mercy Kill: Gloria sees her murder at Robert's hands as this; she has been unhappy all her life, there is still no light at the end of the tunnel, and she has finally had all she can take. Robert sees it that way too, recalling his grandfather euthanizing a horse with a broken leg.
- Moral Guardians: Two women from a local morals society try to have the marathon shut down; Gloria witnesses their meeting and denounces them as interfering Hypocrites.
- Only Friend: Robert is Gloria's only friend; he even states so at the beginning. Pretty much everyone else dislikes Gloria because of her incredibly negative attitude.
- Painting the Medium: The passages in which the judge passes sentence on Robert are rendered in progressively larger font for dramatic effect... until the final line, which is rendered in much smaller font:"...may God have mercy on your soul..."
- Product Placement: Local businesses offer to sponsor the couples in the dance marathon if they wear clothes promoting their merchandise while they dance.
- Questioning Title?: And the answer is, "Yes, but that's no reason to shoot people."
- Shout-Out: Several real-life film actors and directors are mentioned in passing. Some of them even attend the dance marathon as spectators.
- Title Drop: As Robert is arrested by the police and asked why he shot Gloria, his first answer is, "Because she asked me to." When that doesn't satisfy the police, he remembers seeing his grandfather shooting a horse with a broken leg, and replies with the book's title.