Friday, 27 March 2009


It's a bit of a stretch to call I SHOULD HAVE STAYED HOME a forgotten book, after all, Serpent's Tail offered a welcome reprint back in 1997, which I reviewed for an early issue of Crime Time, and which seems like only yesterday, not more than decade past. (That's the 1951 Signet reprint, looking very 50s, pictured right).

But it remains one of the most overlooked of the great Hollywood novels. Published in 1938, it has many similarities to McCoy’s better-known THEY SHOOT HORSES DON’T THEY, which appeared three years earlier, but it could just as easily be viewed as the inspiration for Billy Wilder’s screenplay of SUNSET BOULEVARD. I've seen it suggested that the story is merely an inversion of A STAR IS BORN, which had been a hit movie the previous year, but I think that's true only in the most superficially simplistic sense.

McCoy is one of the hardest of the hard-boiled novelists, and this hard-boiled novel has very little to offer in the way of redemption. The protagonist is Ralph Carson, a big, good looking Southern boy whose slow drawl mitigates against a career in talkies. So he's working as an extra, sharing a flat with a hopeful actress, Mona Matthews. They're not on the hustle, but they are looking for the big break. And it comes when their new roommate, Dorothy, already a failed actress, is arrested for theft. Mona curses out the judge during her friend’s trial, and the resulting notoriety gains them entry into Hollywood society. Corruption follows as sure as the sun sets into the Pacific. Carson becomes toy boy to Mrs. Ethel Smithers, a widow who is rich and influential and who has strong appetites. Not only does he despise himself (remember William Holden in SUNSET BOULEVARD), but McCoy uses the situation to show us exactly why Carson, and a million other good looking kids with some talent never will make it in the human jungle of Hollywood.

The setting and tone is eerily familiar from Wilder’s movie, though the ending is bleaker, and less melodramatic. Mona is fired and blacklisted for union activity; she ends up making a dead-end marriage with a guy she meets through the lonely hearts column (an echo of Nathanael West?), while Ralph stays on in Hollywood, a combination of misplaced optimism and resignation to the reality he can never go home. He's a bit like Joe Buck in MIDNIGHT COWBOY, only more hard-boiled, with the noir hero's usual half-track brain, if not quite the one-track mind.

It all gains impact from McCoy’s hardboiled prose; nearly sixty years later it catches the reader and won’t let go. You’re drawn along, much as the characters themselves are, like marathon dancers who can’t keep going but can’t afford to stop. It's incredibly modern in its vices, and would make a fine film, in period or in our present days of depression, if the film could just be kept true to that tone.

Serpent’s Tail (Midnight Classics) 1997, £6.99
ISBN 9781852424022


pattinase (abbott) said...

I have loved the two books by McCoy I've read. This will be my third. Thanks.

Anthony said...

Hi Michael - greatly enjoying browsing your blog. I surfed over here via a link of obits for PJ Farmer, one of my favourite writers. (I was just reading his Tarzan book a week ago, not knowing..). Your review of JFK AND THE UNSPEAKABLE is dead on. I intend to send a link to your blog to a friend of mine, a cameraman in Melbourne who is into JFK books and (whaddaya know?) worships Leone, hence I suspect he will enjoy your blog too. Hope all is well. cheers, Anthony

Michael Carlson said...

Thanks for that. Is that melbourne fla or melbourne oz?

Anthony said...

Melbourne Oz. I'll add too your WATCHMEN review is one of the few smart ones I've read about the movie. Good stuff all around anyway.