Lost Great American Crime Novel: They Don’t Dance Much

A new edition of James Ross’s 1940 country noir novel

Seventy-three years after its debut and thirty-seven years since its last American edition, They Don’t Dance Much is in print again – thankfully. Mysterious Press has published a new edition of James Ross’s 1940 country noir novel, as author Daniel Woodrell (Winter’s Bone) calls the genre. Woodrell, a fan, wrote the introduction and notes that the book “was often declared dead but has never been successfully buried.” As Flannery O’Connor wrote to her agent in 1949 recommending Ross, “He wrote a very fine book called, ‘They Don’t Dance Much.’ It didn’t sell much.”

I came to the book by accident. Wandering through a Raleigh, NC bookstore one day about 20 years ago, I picked up a British paperback edition with a colorful sketch of a dead body by a gas pump on the cover. I stuck it on the shelf for a few years before I got around to reading it, but when I did, I had the same experience I had the first time I read James M. Cain’s The Postman Always Rings Twice (1934) – I couldn’t stop once I started. I reread paragraphs for the pure pleasure of hearing the words in my head.

Comparisons to Cain dogged James Ross throughout his life. “At the time I was writing They Don’t Dance Much, I had never read one line of Cain,” Ross protested in an interview with Philippe Garnier, translator of the French edition of Dance. (The book made its way to both Europe and Great Britain.) This bleak and fascinating tale of murder, moonshine, gambling, adultery, and sundry other sins is set in small town North Carolina where Ross himself was raised. His writing has been compared to other Depression-era works as well, such as Horace McCoy’s They Shoot Horses, Don’t They?, and Edward Anderson’s Thieves Like Us and Hungry Men.

Woodrell praises James Ross for understanding “the calm power of a man’s voice telling it to you straight without any flapdoodle or varnish.” They Don’t Dance Much unfolds in the first person narration of down-on-his-luck Jack McDonald, who loses his farm and casts his lot with Smut Milligan, a greedy bootlegger who converts a gas station into a roadhouse. Smut commits a nasty crime to keep his place afloat financially, dragging along a reluctant and distrustful Jack:

“After Smut refused to give me my fifteen hundred dollars right then, I began thinking. I began to doubt if he was ever going to give me one dollar of it, let alone fifteen hundred. Every time I thought about that fifteen-hundred-dollar offer I boiled over. A murder’s a bad thing. Here I was mixed up in one and it looked like experience was all I was going to get out of it.”

The book is seventy-three years old, but the writing feels new. Reading They Don’t Dance Much is discovering hidden treasure. James Ross published only one book and eight short stories during his lifetime (1911-1990), but as William Gay said, “maybe one was enough.”

Anthony Hatcher is an associate professor of communications at Elon University. His biographical essay about James Ross will appear in the Summer 2013 edition of the North Carolina Literary Review. He also authored an online essay about Ross for Oxford American.

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