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No Pockets in a Shroud
Horace McCoy

No Pockets in a Shroud
Horace McCoy
Serpent’s Tail
London 1998

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This is a welcome re-issue of a classic Thirties crime novel from the hardboiled school of writing. Although Horace McCoy, who died in 1955, is perhaps less well known than such contemporaries as Raymond Chandler and Dashiell Hammett, his books stand the test of time and remain as fresh as ever. Though perhaps ‘fresh’ is not quite the right word to describe a book with a such a pronounced nihilistic streak running through its centre. McCoy’s fictional world is peopled by ambiguously flawed characters occupying an often brutal and unforgiving landscape, with language to match.

The flawed hero of No Pockets in a Shroud is Mike Dolan, a hardened, yet idealistic newspaper man with a burning desire to print the truth. But with corruption and scandal rife throughout the upper echelons of City life, Dolan finds that the newspaper owners have a vested interest in turning a blind eye to certain unsavoury activities. For when the biggest crooks in town are also the newspapers’ major source of advertising revenue, to expose them would be bad news for the balance sheets. Frustrated by this collective myopia, Dolan sets up his own magazine to expose the hypocrisy and lies which surround him. Dolan’s friends try to warn him with words, but his enemies – the society abortionist, the crooked baseball team, and a neo-fascist group of white supremacists – try lead pipes and strong arm tactics. But Mike Dolan won’t be deterred until he’s got a clean city and a clearer conscience – no matter what the cost to himself, or others. Dolan is an engrossing character who is one part idealist, one part fatalist, and one part unreliable flake. And for some reason these qualities prove irresistible to the women who throw themselves at his feet with enviable regularity. Dolan though is unimpressed with this adulation and on meeting a particularly voluptuous vamp, the world weary journalist looks at her

“with the look of a man who knows the woman he is looking at is his for the asking, and that lying on the bed with her clothes off, her body will be beautiful and demand loving, and he knew too, or seemed to sense (which are one and the same thing in sensual philosophy) that the act itself would be no more satisfactory than taking a beautiful corpse for a mistress”.

But it still doesn’t prevent him from finding out for sure.

What raises No Pockets in a Shroud above just being an interesting and well written example of a hardboiled crime story, is McCoy’s introduction of moral and political themes which are perhaps as relevant today as they were in pre-war America. This short and often surprising book raises issues as diverse as the freedom of the press; political free speech, racism, abortion; and sexuality. It’s interesting to speculate what sort of reception conservative middle America would have given this book when it was first published. A fiery one, probably.

Reviewed by Jon Mitchell


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