7.11.10

Ed McBain's Eight Black Horses


Evan Hunter (known to mystery novel enthusiasts as Ed McBain) has written over 100 novels; he is particularly known for his fifty-five “87th Precinct” mysteries. During a career that spanned half a century, this prolific author wrote general fiction, crime novels, plays, and scripts for film and television. McBain’s popularity has never waned and his books have sold more than 100 million copies. The 87th Precinct series served as a model for a number of television police shows. McBain won two prestigious awards for lifetime achievement: the Mystery Writers of America’s Grand Master and the British Crime Writers Association’s Diamond Dagger.

Eight Black Horses, one of McBain’s most intriguing 87th Precinct novels, begins with the discovery of a naked woman’s body in a downtown park. There are no clues to her identity. After police find the body, Detective Steve Carella starts receiving mysterious papers delivered in plain white envelopes. The first one is a picture of eight black horses; the next one, five walkie-talkies; and subsequent ones, randomly numbered police-related paraphernalia. Everyone in the precinct suspects the “deaf man,” a shrewd criminal who has previously escaped them.

Ed McBain is one of the genre’s best story-tellers. In Eight Black Horses, he creates an inexorable build-up to an event that we hope will never take place. “I promise to keep you awake all night,” he wrote in the essay “Nature of the Beast.”
I like to believe I’ve made a contract with the reader. The contract is a simple one. I know all the rules of mystery writing, and I promise that I will observe them so long as they provide a novel that will keep you fascinated, intrigued, and entertained. If they get in the way of that basic need, I’ll either bend the rules or break them, but I will never cheat the reader. Never.
What makes this novel especially interesting is the use of multi-voiced narration. We see events through the eyes of numerous characters, including both the perpetrator and victims of the crime. McBain believed that identifying a narrator’s voice is the single most important decision in a novel. He advised would-be writers not to write a word until they have found the perfect vantage point from which to tell the story: “Don’t worry about spending days or weeks trying to find a voice. It will be time well spent. You’ll know when you hit upon it. Things will suddenly feel right.”

In the procedural novel, the police force as a group rather than any single individual within it solves the crime. McBain did not create the genre but he certainly popularized it. Miller argues that McBain adapted the format from World War II films, “where the protagonists are a team of soldiers. . . who rub along together, learn from one another, take causalities, get the Big Job done” (1998, 517).

In a New York Times’s article on the author’s passing, Marilyn Stasio pointed out that McBain
laid down the formula that would define the urban police novel to this day, including the big, bad city as a character in the drama; multiple story lines; swift, cinematic exposition; brutal action scenes and searing images of ghetto violence; methodical teamwork; authentic forensic procedures; and tough, cynical yet sympathetic police officers speaking dialogue so real that it could have been soaked up in a Queens diner between squad shifts.
Realism was something that McBain worked hard to achieve. He warned his readers, “These are realistic novels, so if you are looking for Agatha Christie, you’re not only in the wrong pew, you’re in the wrong church.” The 87th Precinct novels are tough, hard-boiled novels. Butts pointed out that these books reflect the worst aspects of post-war urban society, a world in which “cruelty and drugs and poverty and violent deaths are taken for granted” (1985, 102).

The 87th precinct is located in Isola, a fictionalized version of New York City. Detective Monroe comments, “This city, 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” (4). McBain grew up in New York and depicts the realities of modern urban life with a starkness and conviction that few mystery writers equal. “When there’s a body in a doorway and an awful secret to be uncovered,” claims Naughtie, “no one takes you through these streets with more understanding, and more comprehension of the thrill of discovery, than McBain. A master.”

Butts, Dennis. “The Cop and the Machine: Technology and the 87th Precinct Novels of Ed McBain.” Clues 6, no. 2 (1985): 99-107.

McBain, Ed. Eight Black Horses. 1985. New York: Pocket Books, 2003.

Miller, Dean A. “Evan Hunter (b. 1926).” In Mystery and Suspense Writers: The Literature of Crime, Detection, and Espionage, edited by Robin W. Winks, vol. 1: 517-526. New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1998.