Sunday, March 27, 2016

Review of "Death of the Black-Haired Girl" by Robert Stone


While browsing in the library I picked this book up because - from the title - I thought it was a mystery. Though there's a death in the story it's not a mystery as such, with detectives following clues, etc. It's more of a literary novel.

The basic story: Maud Stack is a beautiful, bright co-ed at a prestigious New England college. She drinks too much, is having an affair with her professor/advisor Steve Brookman, and writes for the college newspaper, 'The Gazette'. Local anti-abortion protestors inspire Maud to write a scathing editorial supporting women's rights. The editorial describes non-aborted babies with serious birth defects and/or lethal syndromes - with distressing photos when the article goes online. Before it's published Maud drops the article off at Brookman's office, hoping to impress him with her writing.

As it happens Brookman has just learned that his wife is pregnant with their much-desired second child and has decided to break up with Maud. Thus, he doesn't read her article, avoids her phone calls, and doesn't respond to her text messages. Without Brookman to deter her, Maud's article is published. It garners enormous fury and blowback from the anti-abortion community, especially religious Catholics. (This part is hard to buy into. Surely the editor of 'The Gazette' would nix publication of such an inflammatory piece.)

Maud, very much in love with Brookman, is devastated by the break up. She shows up drunk outside his house one blizzardy evening and throws snow at the windows, screams at him, yells things about his wife, and so on. Brookman, wanting to protect his family, goes out to confront Maud - hoping to convince her to go home. Maud attacks Brookman, punching and hitting. Brookman tries to restrain the girl, and during the struggle a car hits Maud and she's killed.

Detectives investigate the incident. Did an anti-abortion protestor hit Maud? Did Brookman push her in front of the car? Was it a random accident? Was it the religious, stalkerish, estranged husband of Maud's roommate? Various 'witnesses' provide conflicting accounts of what happened and it's hard to decipher the truth.

As it happens Maud's father, Ed Stack, was once a New York City police detective who was at the Twin Towers on 9/11. Stack got emphysema from the dust, became disabled, and retired. Stack loves his daughter, is devastated by her death, and is determined to get retribution. Stack also feels guilty for 'abetting' thefts from dead victims of 9/11, and speculates that God might be punishing him by taking his child. (It's pretty horrifying to think that cops would steal from disaster victims but who knows if this is true or not).

Though some of this sounds like the stuff of mystery, the story doesn't really slant that way. It's more about a teacher/student affair, abortion/pro-choice issues, religion, a former nun who's now a student counselor, a militant priest who once worked in South America, a mentally ill man wandering around campus, Ed Stack's possible revenge, how Brookman's wife and co-wokrers react to the scandal, and more. In the end we do find out who killed Maud but this isn't the important part of the story.

The book has interesting characters and situations but I found it hard to remain engaged in the tale, which seems to wander all over the place. Thus, in the end, I didn't like the book much.

Rating: 2.5 stars

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