Reviews > Published on November 26th, 2013

Bookshots: 'Death of the Black-Haired Girl' by Robert Stone

Bookshots: Pumping new life into the corpse of the book review


Death of the Black-Haired Girl

Who wrote it?

[Stone's] aim isn’t to keep us guessing. It’s to lay bare his characters, and he does this with the kind of economical glee that makes every single page of this book a treasure.

Robert Stone: multi-award winning, Pulitzer nommed heavy weight, best known for Dog Soldiers, which nabbed him a National Book Award for Fiction.

Plot in a Box:

The death of a beautiful, reckless student unravels the lives of her family, lover and friends.

Invent a new title for this book:

The Cold Dead Heart of the Matter

Read this if you liked:

As the alt-title suggests, anything by Graham Greene, or for a more recent example of another thriller which relies heavily on character, The Silent Wife by A. S. A. Harrison.

Meet the book’s lead:

Maud Stack: black haired, opinionated, doomed.

Said lead would be portrayed in a movie by:

Krysten Ritter beats any competition by a country mile.

Setting: would you want to live here?

The New England college setting is chilly, but vastly appealing, not least because I could rent a rambling wood paneled house and pretend to be Shirley Jackson.

What was your favorite sentence?

Maud had a plan to deal with their piety, to make them eat their miraculous chain letters to Saint Jude and the pictures their potbellied epicene prelates and blow-dried chiseling preachers had assembled.

The Verdict:

If you come to this book expecting the whodunit suggested by the title, then you will leave disappointed. Stone manipulates the story enough to provoke a little curiosity about exactly what happened on the night Maud dies, apparently at the hands of a hit and run driver, but his aim isn’t to keep us guessing. It’s to lay bare his characters, and he does this with the kind of economical glee that makes every single page of this book a treasure.

Stone’s drip feed of back story wrong-foots your sympathies at every turn, doing with his dramatis personae what most writers do with plot. At the beginning of the story, it’s difficult to like the people you meet: Maud, gratingly naïve, entitled and opinionated; Steve Brookman, her smug-married tutor and lover; Maud’s bubble-headed roomie, Shelby. Yet, as the narrative unfolds, these impressions become more and more nuanced. Maud is also wronged, smart and valiant; Steve is a loving father, a man with a brutal, salt-soaked youth; Shelby has a mad backwoods ex and a mother whose response to her daughter’s email about a death threat is to say that ‘it isn’t all about her.’

Just as it’s only possible to hate people from a distance, the more Stone reveals about his complex and emotionally twisty characters, the harder they are to dislike. Even Steve’s frosty Mennonite wife Elsa is the first to run to Maud, stricken after the accident. Steve himself, disgraced and sacked, has it in him to be glad that the scandal has not also led to the dismissal of his boss. And Maud’s father, Robert Stack – probably Stone’s most finely drawn creation – dying from emphysema, widowed, deprived of his only child, discovers that as well as a need for vengeance, he also possesses reserves of forgiveness.

If you detect a religious overtone at this point, you’d be right. The resemblance to the work of arch-Catholic Graham Greene isn’t superficial. Death of the Black-Haired Girl mines the same territory: of sin and redemption, of suffering and transfiguration. An ex-nun who has witnessed atrocities receives a visit from the ghost of a torturer. The insane wander the college town streets, bearing witness to miracles. Anti-abortionists protest outside the obstetric clinic, demanding God’s Angels Be Saved. In Death of the Black-Haired Girl, Stone, like Greene, hunts not for a killer, but for moments of human grace. And generally, as his characters grapple with the tragedy of Maud’s death, he finds it.

About the author

Cath Murphy is Review Editor at and cohost of the Unprintable podcast. Together with the fabulous Eve Harvey she also talks about slightly naughty stuff at the Domestic Hell blog and podcast.

Three words to describe Cath: mature, irresponsible, contradictory, unreliable...oh...that's four.

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