Death of the Black-Haired Girl a Cut above Standard Thrillers

Robert Stone
Houghton-Mifflin, 978-0618386239, 288 pp.  
* * *

Robert Stone gained literary fame when Dog Soldiers won a National Book Award in 1975. Back then he was known for having been on the fringes of both the counterculture and the gonzo journalism movements, though he wasn't really immersed in the first and wrote too coherently for the second. He did/does have the edge of gonzo journalists, though fiction has always been his métier.

Death of the Black-Haired Girl, his latest novel feels less weighty and important than his previous works but it's still a very good read that raises important considerations. On the surface it's a pretty simple book. Maud Stack is a beautiful, combative, student from Queens who is studying at a tony New England college because–in regional parlance–she's wicked smaht. That does not mean she always makes intelligent choices. For instance, she decides to take on the anti-abortion movement by writing an article that uses the same tactics against it: hyperbole, character assassination, incendiary language, and graphic images. She absolutely slanders the Catholic Church. Her mentor, English professor Stephen Brookman, has made some pretty dumb choices of his own. He's Maud's lover, though he is married to Ellie, a Mennonite woman and has one child and another on the way and can't find the inner strength to break with Maud. Nor did he talk her out of publishing her article. When Maud and Stephen have a confrontation on his doorstep, Maud steps into what was supposed to be a blocked-off street and is killed by a speeding hit-and-run driver. Did she walk into its path, or was she pushed? Accident or murder?

This may sound like a run-of-the-mill mystery thriller and so it is to some degree, but Stone has more depth than the average purveyor of pulp. It is a book about decisions and consequences. Maud is reckless in other ways. She frequents dives along the town's seedy wharf area, walks in areas known to be unsafe, doesn't avoid the mentally ill street people who lurk in the shadows of her campus, and is so self-righteous she absolutely refuses to exercise caution when her article yields death threats. Maybe it's a reaction against her father, Eddie, a beat cop who retired after 9/11 and spends his wallowing in guilt and being ineffectual.

Explorations of religious faith are a Stone staple. Death features dogma-blinded anti-abortionists, a scary Kentucky minister named Russell Fumes, Ellie's Mennonite beliefs, and a college counselor named Jo Carr who is an ex-nun who lost much but not all of her faith and worries that one of the crazies she sees wandering across campus may be the psychotic revolutionary priest she knew when working in Central America. Mainly she worries about Maud, post pre- and postmortem.

Stone also plumbs questions of madness and forces us to see the type that lurks on the surface and the varieties that linger within. The plot of this novel may owe something to a 1988 murder at Yale, and though the novel is set in a town called Amesbury, it sure feels like New Haven, CT, a place where the lines between order and chaos are exceedingly thin. (Stone also taught at Yale for a time, so it's certainly plausible to think New Haven was in his thoughts.)

 Not everything in this novel works. Maud's roommate, Southern-born actress Shelby Magoffin, isn't a well-realized character, and her ex-husband, John Clammer, is akin to a two-dimensional cardboard silhouette. The investigation into what happened to Maud–which involves her father and a former colleague–is pretty conventional, at least until Eddie and Stephen meet. But Stone is very good at showing the frisson between Maud and Stephen, and deliciously cold when members of the college must own the consequences of their inaction. Stone is at his Hawthorne-like best when reminding us that both action and non-action demand payment to the piper.
-Rob Weir

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