EIGHT BLACK HORSES (1985) by Ed McBain

McBain_Eight-Black-Horses_avonAt the end of Lightning, the previous book in the 87th Precinct series, a photo of eight black horses was sent to Steve Carella – and immediately he and his colleagues knew this could mean only one thing: the return of their arch nemesis, The Deaf Man. This book picks up almost immediately afterwards, with Carella and the squad really worried about what lies in store for them. The Deaf Man likes to tease the squad by ‘playing fair’ and providing real clues to his plan – but will they solve the riddles in time?

I submit this review for  Bev’s Vintage Mystery Challenge; and Patti Abbott’s Friday’s Forgotten Books meme over at her fab Pattinase blog, which today celebrates Ed McBain.

Eight Black Horses (87th Precinct series #38)
First Published: 1985
Leading players: Steve Carella, Meyer Meyer, Bert Kling, Eileen Burke, Cotton Hawes, Annie Rawles, Arthur Brown, Richard Genero, Peter Byrnes, Andy Parker, The Deaf Man

“This city,” Monroe said, “you can carry a dead person in a park, she’s got a bullet hole in her head and she’s starkers, nobody bats an eyelash.”

After a series of books in which McBain juggled several plotlines and seemed to inflate their length with unnecessary asides (and in the case of Lightning, a dozen pages of near-illegible diagrams), it is a bit of a relief to come back to a more linear approach. Right from the start we know The Deaf Man is behind it all, which actually gives the plot some chance to breathe. The basic scenario is a riff on the one from his previous caper, Let’s Hear it for the Deaf Man! (which I previously  reviewed here): the squad, and Carella specifically, starts to receive photos that will relate to the crime that is being planned (the Deaf Man usually goes in for bank robberies and extortion). After the horses come more photos relating to cops in general: two night sticks, three pairs of handcuffs, four police hats etc. As we get nearer and nearer to Christmas, the Squad assumes that the list will stop at a dozen, as befits the season.

“The Deaf Man arrived, and suddenly the circus was in town.”

And when a bank teller is found murdered in the park, the boys immediately assume that this is part of the plot. The Deaf Man’s sense of connection to Carella is further explored when we realise that he has started impersonating him, leading to an amusing subplot in which a woman goes to see Teddy, convinced that she has been having an affair with the detective, when really it’s the cold-blooded master criminal she’s been canoodling. However, even after she is warned, she still takes him back for more consensual s&m – and no, it doesn’t end well, once he realises his impersonation has been uncovered. While there are the usual murders to uncover, and a series of deadly attacks on cops too, the Deaf Man has to contend with the fact that the best laid plans are nearly always scuppered by those pesky unknown factors such as human stupidity (personified here by the the dumbest cop ever, Dick Genero).

“The city had by then taken down all its Christmas trimmings. It looked somehow naked, but there were probably eight million stories in it anyway.”

Maybe for its Christmas setting or for the return of the Squad’s bespoke supervillain, this is altogether a lighter read than some of the recent volumes in the series, and in this case the better for it. There are also some amusing in-jokes, such as The Deaf Man telling us that he loves Hitchcock moves apart from The Birds (which McBain scripted as ‘Evan Hunter’). This is also the book which sees the return of the odious, hate-filled Andy Parker – we even get to find out what his real first name is … and no, I’m not telling – you’ll have to find out for yourselves. Go read the book, it’s very entertaining and you won’t regret it.

The Deaf Man cases

  • The Heckler (1960) – which I previously reviewed here
  • Fuzz (1968) – reviewed here
  • Let’s Hear it for the Deaf Man! (1973) – reviewed here
  • Eight Black Horses (1985)
  • Mischief (1993)
  • Hark! (2004)

This review was submitted as part of Bev’s 2015 Silver Age Vintage Mystery Challengbingo in ‘animal in the title’ the category:


***** (3.5 fedora tips out of 5)

This entry was posted in 2015 Vintage Mystery Challenge, 87th Precinct, Ed McBain, Friday's Forgotten Book, New York, Police procedural. Bookmark the permalink.

34 Responses to EIGHT BLACK HORSES (1985) by Ed McBain

  1. Margot Kinberg says:

    Ah, the Deaf Man. Definitely one of the more iconic crime-fictional nemeses, if you ask me, Sergio. Good to know you thought this one a solid, more linear sort of puzzle. And not many could get away with that impersonation plot point. Just shows McBain’s skill, in my humble opinion.

  2. Colin says:

    Looks as though you liked this one a lot and the tone & structure sound like they played a significant part in that.

    • Yeah, after the comparative darkness of the previous one especially, this feels like it is on much more solid ground. Sure, it is less serious and less ambitious but much easier to enjoy and you need that sometimes (mind you, about 10 people get murdered in this one, so not exactly light and fluffy)

  3. kaggsysbookishramblings says:

    I remember when these came out and the excitement of waiting for the next book knowing it would be the Deaf Man. He was a wonderful creation – one of McBain’s great achievements. I rather feel like going to read all these again!!

  4. Simon says:

    I Agee with kaggsysbookishramblings, a new 87th Precinct novel was always an occasion for me, but a Deaf Man story made it that little bit extra special. I wonder if McBain ever planned on a final denouement for him. I still wonder who he really was…
    He and Red John were among my favourite fictional sociopaths ( even though that reveal was a bit of a let down) and I think that Simon Baker would make a great Deaf Man..
    ..the third being the excellent Dexter, but I digress, sorry

  5. I enjoyed the Deaf Man novels in the 87th Precinct series. Clearly, McBain felt the cops needed an arch-enemy to challenge them.

    • It’s the Moriarty syndrome – interesting, isn’t it, how hard it is to get away from in popular fiction? It is kind of a surprise though that he brought him back initially in the farcical Fuzz but by leaving the endings open we always knew there would be more, eventually …

  6. realthog says:

    Good to see you’re getting back into the 87th swing again, having had your doubts about the last few. Yes, the Deaf Man ones did tend to be standouts.

  7. Matt Paust says:

    A series within a series. Something more to look forward to now that I’ve come back to McBain after a looooong hiatus. Thanks for the intro.

  8. Hank says:

    This was not the first McBain novel I ever read, but it was my first Deaf Man novel–and the novel that officially hooked me on McBain and this series.

    This is the novel I’d recommend to anybody wondering which 87th Precinct title to start with–everything is relatively self-contained, and enough of McBain’s style, his trademark excess, and his occasional conceits are on display for the novice reader to judge whether or not his stuff is right for them.

    Not much else to add. For me, this book is like candy–as good as McBain gets.

    Oh–and Sergio–I started to write something about the McBain universe the other, but yesterday was the first of the month–the rent was due and I just don’t have the focus at this moment. I’ll get back to what I started eventually, but such fun stuff will have to wait. (My paperback copy of “Money. Money, Money” has been sitting on my desk, unread, for a few days now.)

  9. Richard says:

    Did you notice your review title says Eight Black Horses, but your book information block says Lightning? Just FYI. If I try another McBain, this will be the one, I think, or Fuzz.

  10. neer says:

    After reading these spate of McBain reviews, Sergio, I feel like starting on the books. Is Cop-Hater the first in this series?

  11. tracybham says:

    I wish I was this far in the series, I would love to read a McBain Christmas book this year. Oh well.

  12. Kelly says:

    Ha, The Birds joke is a nice bit of self-deprecating humor. It would have gone right by me!

  13. Pingback: MISCHIEF (1993) by Ed McBain | Tipping My Fedora

  14. Pingback: HARK! (2004) by Ed McBain | Tipping My Fedora

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