Robert Stone

Death of the Black Haired Girl

Robert Stone is a writer’s writer, a journalist’s journalist, a connoisseur’s connoisseur: his fiction is unfettered in its confidence and precision, his vocabulary immense, his breadth of knowledge unfathomable, and, if you didn’t know better, you might think that Death of the Black Haired Girl was written by a new adherent to the genre of crime writing.

Each sentence has a dexterous freshness, with a younger writer’s natural instinct to embellish each observation, so that ‘the mild sweet wind carried dogwood and azalea blossoms, mission fulfilled, message delivered.’

Much in evidence, almost omniscient, is Stone’s aquifer of knowledge: the insights and the extrapolations which often betray a grinding weariness, an exhaustion of the soul. There is a brilliantly wrought scene in a diocesan office as a priest casually obstructs a grieving father’s attempt to reinter the remains of  his daughter with her mother.

“How about opening up and receiving the kid’s ashes?”

“Yeah, well,” Father Washington said in a strange tone, different from the brisk one he had been employing. “Now you want us.”

“Yeah,” Stack said. “Now I want yez.”

“Not so easy,” said the priest, with the hint of a smile.

Any journalist who has dealt with the Catholic Church of old will appreciate the ring of authenticity: Stone, author of Dog Soldiers and a septuagenarian writing better than ever, spent time in a Catholic orphanage, which couldn’t have been a walk in the park.

An orphanage run by the Church makes an appearance in an early short story, Absence of Mercy, and is described by Stone as having “the social dynamic of a coral reef.” In his life, Stone has been around the block a few times: he was in the US Navy for four years, observed the bombing of Port Said by the French, worked for the New York Daily News, hung out with Beat writers and has been publishing novels since 1967.

Death of the Black Haired Girl is less crime novel than thriller, though Stone doesn’t deliberately deal in suspense: sure, there’s a killing and there’s a killer on the loose, but that’s a side show to Stone’s Greek drama. A single event can corral people with apparently little in common. But spilt blood is a rose of union.

Stone is a master of both ambience and atmosphere: the affair between Professor Steven Brookman and his student Maud Stack has as its back drop a college in New England, shrouded by the hues of winter or a river fog. As the affair tumbles messily towards its denouement, reason becomes a slave of the emotions, and shit happens. Stone’s characters are never less than a stone’s throw from a vortex, to which they drift helplessly. Stone once remarked: ‘Somebody has said that it’s almost as hard to stop being a Catholic as it is to stop being a black.’ Death of the Black Haired Girl is also a novel about faith, which is why Stone is compared with Graham Greene. Fiction is a quest to uncover meaning in the darkest of places.

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