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