At 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 Challenge bingo in ‘animal in the title’ the category: