Near the end of Robert Stone’s new novel, Death Of The Black-Haired Girl, Eddie Stack, reeling from the death of his daughter Maud (the titular subject with the raven-colored mane), barks, “What the fuck is my legacy?” For Stone, aged 76, whose career includes 11 books and a National Book Award (for Dog Soldiers), it’s a question that might currently haunt the forefront of the author’s mind as well. Though it’s a notion that has dogged his characters from the beginning, ever since Reinhardt woke up hungover in New Orleans in the opening pages of Stone’s 1967 debut, A Hall Of Mirrors.
Nearly 50 years later, Stone has written a swiftly moving campus novel/police procedural as drenched with boozy Biblical foreboding as anything else in his oeuvre. Yet, like the emphysema that plagues Eddie Stack, for all of Stone’s fearless forays into the deep weeds—from 9/11 to abortion to faith to class struggle—Death Of The Black-Haired Girl gasps each time it tries to gulp.
Maud Stack dies about a third of the way into the novel. (That’s no spoiler; it’s right there in the title.) So it’s the circumstance of her death and whether anyone can be held responsible—including Maud herself—that becomes the central concern of the book’s remaining pages. Hovering on the periphery is Jo Carr, a former revolutionary and nun (a reimagining of Sister Justin from his own 1981 novel A Flag For Sunrise) whose guidance is sought again and again by most of the novel’s major players. Working as a counselor at the college in Amesbury (a fictional burg and school that could be modeled after Amherst, where Stone has taught), Carr divides her time advising troubled youths and working at Whelan Hospital, a lightning-rod institution for anti-abortion demonstrators. It’s this latter group that rankles the idealistic Maud, and she pens an editorial for the school’s Gazette, taunting the right-to-lifers with a venomous screed that denounces God as “the Great Abortionist,” estimating that “twenty percent of the sparkly tykes he generates abort—but he don’t like some girl doin’ it.”
Fate is the overarching theme here, darkening the landscape as much as the Gothic spires and gray New England clouds. If Death Of The Black-Haired Girl is a detective novel, a whodunit, or a murder mystery, it aspires to be a lofty one almost in spite of itself. Stone has all the rhythms of a thriller down, but when a “big idea” shows up, it’s almost possible to hear the author slamming on the brakes before hurtling down some existential alleyway that derails the momentum required of pure entertainment.
This is a book, in part, about why anyone dies, and whether it matters. The cause of Maud’s (or anyone’s) death is almost an afterthought. Everyone will end up victims of life. Any actual culprit (disease, accident, or villain) is only an unwitting mediator of God’s will. Does it matter that Maud carried on an illicit affair with her academic advisor and professor Steven Brookman? Is her death her own fault? What should be made of Brookman’s pregnant wife, just returned from a Mennonite retreat, and her casual, cryptic mutterings, or that his daughter reads Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret at bedtime? Or that Eddie is a retired New York City policeman, whose emphysema was likely contracted from the floating debris of 9/11?
There are several literary in-jokes. Maud’s roommate Shelby Magoffin (a play on MacGuffin, in a novel brimming with them) appears as the novel’s first speaker, only to fade into the background for the duration. Lieutenant Lou Salmone (reminiscent of Salome) is tasked with investigating Maud’s death—and happens to be Stack’s long-ago partner who has knowledge of some complex side plot involving extorted money and Maud’s tuition payments—and Stone delivers his John The Baptist punchline thusly: “Salmone was thinking that he could hardly promise his friend Brookman’s head on a plate.” And Stone manages to make reference to topics as seemingly unrelated as Lindsay Lohan, Chet Baker, Doctor Faustus, and As You Like It.
Late in the novel, ever more people saunter across the stage, complicating both the investigation and the reader’s patience (who at this point just wants to know what happened and who did it). Mary Pick, elderly and graceful and the wife of the school’s chancellor, arrives well past page 200, with a long backstory rendered with efficient swiftness and a convenient relationship with a local bishop where she intervenes to negotiate a resting place for Maud’s ashes, a goal complicated in light of Maud’s blasphemous editorial. There’s some fascination with locks that link the beginning of the book with the end: It starts by describing the campus and all the ways in which the college folds up behind gated safety and turned keys, then ends the narrative with Brookman unlocking those very doors to await his fate.
In the novel’s final pages, a psychiatrist named Victor Lerner (yet another late arrival) convenes with the former nun-revolutionary Jo Carr and says, “People always want their suffering to mean something.” Death Of The Black-Haired Girl ends up fine for entertainment, but anyone who turns to literature (especially Stone’s) for a bit more, for it to mean something, will probably be just as let down as those who showed up to find out who did it in this not-quite whodunit.