It's getting into the holiday season at the 87th Precinct, and what's this? An unexplained package for Det. Steve Carella? A dead naked woman lying in the park across the street? Must be another call from that fiendish archvillain, the Deaf Man.
"Eight Black Horses" was published in 1985, but it's more like a throwback to an earlier time in the 87th Precinct's development, when the accent was more on the mystery and less on the characters around it. That's not a bad thing here, since the problem posed to the investigators (and readers) by the Deaf Man is so involving and enjoyable in its macabre way. You get four dead civilians, three dead cops, and plenty of kinky sex before this one is through, so maybe it's not so bad to take this one as an entry in a lighter vein.
Ed McBain is as serious as death when he writes one of his 87th Precinct thrillers, but sometimes he's less serious than others, like he is here when he writes of a woman, feeling jilted after a one-night stand involving bondage and Russian roulette: "Lying to her, taking advantage of her, doing disgusting things to her, and then not even calling her again..."
The pace of this one zips along in classic 87th Precinct style, with more attention than usual given to the full complement of detectives in the squadroom. The clues the reader and the detectives get are clever even if we pick up on it a little before they do. Something about the Deaf Man makes him operate like his classical predecessor, Moriarty, laying forth the gauntlet in an almost gentlemanly style that would seem archaic were it not so entertaining. It makes him happy company, too, however fiendish he may be.
For those who try to keep score, there's some useful details about the boroughs of Isola and how they were named: "Bethtown had been named for the virgin queen Elizabeth, but undoubtedly by a British officer with a lisp; it was supposed to be Besstown."
And there's even some Christmas cheer to be had. Never mind that the Santa at the local department store isn't called "short eyes" because he gets confused about his elves. Probably the finest misanthropic take on the meaning of Christmas is offered by Det. Andy Parker in a hilarious monologue that belongs in any curmudgeon's handbook.
Even for 87th Precinct fans, the Deaf Man may be a bit of an acquired taste; since he likes to drop clues a la the Riddler he pushes the bounds of realism somewhat more than some 87th Precinct readers might like. But for those of us who enjoy Ed McBain's storytelling vibrancy, having an outsized story now and then only adds to the pleasures of the series.
And there's always useful information to be had. Here, for example, we learn from a detective which silk panties to buy a girlfriend for which day of the week. Saturday is black, we know, but Thursdays are purple? Just as long as you don't forget the lavender garter belt...