Death of the Black-Haired Girl by Robert Stone, book review: Literary thriller has won plaudits from Philip Roth but doesn't live up to its hype


Robert Stone comes lauded with praise by his contemporary Philip Roth who compares him to the French Nobel Laureate François Mauriac. That's quite some introduction. Whether readers of Stone's eighth novel agree might well depend on their empathy with – or even tolerance for – the sometimes over-wrought religious backdrop to a story that begins with every suggestion of being Fatal Attraction in academia.

Steven Brookman, a former crab fisherman and one-time (unfairly convicted) jailbird turned travel writer and academic, is determined to end his affair with the brilliant hothead student of the title, Maud Stack. She is a striking, infuriating, though compulsively memorable character who any actress would want to play in the film adaptation.

At the centre of this ostensible whodunnit is the storm of outrage she provokes with a verbose attack in the student newspaper on the anti-abortion protesters at the local hospital. As is clearly signposted, this is never going to end well, though it is still a surprise when the death arrives comparatively early.

This leaves a string of red herrings to play out as we are asked to ponder whether she has been targeted by one of the ridiculed protesters, or by the deranged ex of her filmstar flatmate or – in a particularly complicated twist – avenging relatives of victims of 9/11 who have discovered that, thanks to dodgy coppers, Maud is actually having her path through college subsidised by the appropriated lost wealth of the Twin Towers dead.

There is also the suggestion that Brookman is culpable himself, heightening the jeopardy for a man who has already realised far too late that infidelity does not pay.

The thriller stretches credulity, not least because everyone has an implausibly dramatic back story. Jo Carr, the college counsellor, was once a nun swept up in the revolutionary politics of South America. Mary Pick, the dean's English wife, is a Catholic art historian whose first husband was blown in half by an IRA bomb. Brookman's own long-suffering wife, Ellie, is a Mennonite who tells him: "I love you next to God."

Brookman quotes Mephistopheles in Doctor Faustus: "Why this is hell, nor am I out of it." But Stone's own linguistic flourishes fall short of the heights of Christopher Marlowe – which would matter less if the publishers had not hailed it a literary thriller. And while it is unfair to judge a novel on its amorous passages, Brookman is rendered commonplace in his meeting with Maud: "He felt as if he could drain her, overwhelm and consume her, all her scents and silky turns, the firm athlete's body."

Maud's florid hyperbole in her Gazette attack could be seen as an illustration of her youthful excess. "They say that the Assembly of God, assembled by God... treats us to the spectacle of eternal punishment in a kind of haunted house acted out by whooped-up teenagers called Hell House," she writes in her fearless indictment of the anti-abortionists. But asked whether the article is any good, Pick asserts, "A writer lost to us there," with an authority that made me wonder whether this was possibly the view of Stone himself or whether everyone in the story is partly deluded.

Many will find the twists and turns engrossing and the unfaithful man humbled is a narrative that never entirely palls. The clash of warm-hearted wisdom and impetuosity as Jo urges Maud to "learn a little compassion" is one of several touching moments. But on this evidence, read Roth's novels, not his recommendations.