Wednesday, January 4, 2017

Eight Black Horses (87th Precinct #38)Eight Black Horses by Ed McBain
My rating: 1 of 5 stars

"Sixteen horses were still alive when the two patrolmen got there. They were not actually screaming. Just white-eyed with terror and - one of the patrolmen described it as 'keening,' but he was Irish."

Eight Black Horses is the seventh installment in my selective re-read of Ed McBain's magnum opus, and the 38th entry in the "87th Precinct" series. This is one of McBain’s "Deaf Man novels" that feature an arch-villain and a criminal mastermind who in addition to committing crimes for financial gain wants to humiliate and hurt the police, in particular the 87th Precinct detectives, and especially Steve Carella. I find the clichéd, tired arch-villain motif a strong turn-off and despite some memorable fragments I am unable to recommend this novel.

The plot begins with the cliché passage depicting Monoghan and Monroe in their black overcoats at the murder scene: the body of a naked woman has been found, with a bullet hole at the base of her skull. Carella and Brown head the investigation but the 87th Precinct detectives are preoccupied with other events as well: they keep receiving mysterious letters apparently sent by the Deaf Man: the letters, in seemingly random order, mention eight black horses, three pairs of handcuffs, six police shields, etc. The narration keeps switching between the detectives’ activities and the Deaf Man’s exploits and all threads eventually lead to the climactic finale. At least 40 pages of the last third of the book contain the author’s lame attempts to extend the tension and delay the resolution for as long as possible: pages and pages are filled with irrelevant fluff that heavily taxes the readers' patience.

The memorable scene around the one-fourth point of the novel involves psychologically brutal seduction, intimidation and domination: hard stuff that combines raw sex and savage power. While difficult to read the scene exudes psychological realism. As if to balance this at about midpoint of the novel we have an interrogation scene that seems to be written by an aspiring author: awkward, artificial, and totally implausible. And how about the Deaf Man, this supposedly brilliant criminal mastermind, who uses inept helpers in carrying out his plans? In real life he wouldn't last long with associates that stupid.

The caricature of Richard Genero, now a detective but still a total jackass, is so cliché that it is not in the least funny. On the other hand the author displays some great if twisted sense of humor in two scenes that juxtapose sexual activities and death. But even these good bits can't save this wreck of a novel.

The book was published in 1985, approximately one complete generation after Cop Hater , the first novel in the series that appeared in 1956. Yet except for superficial differences, mostly involving technology, not much changed in the City or in the police procedure. This helps in maintaining credibility of the author's trick who keeps the series protagonists' personal time run much slower than the time elapsed between consecutive novels.

One and a half stars.

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