by Robert Stone
A married, middle-aged writing professor; his sultry, brilliant star pupil; and his wife, unexpectedly, blissfully pregnant. You know the story. But then the girl is killed, struck by a speeding car during a quarrel outside the professor’s house. Was it just a tragic accident or something more sinister?
Death of the Black-Haired Girl is being peddled as a murder mystery—which it is—but it's no simple whodunit. For starters, the reader knows all along that the prime suspect did not kill the girl. But does the fact that he is hardly blameless make the professor guilty? Of what, exactly? And what about the threats made against the girl's life for an incendiary "pro-choice" editorial published just days before her death? Never mind a Church whose clergy preach violence and practice cruelty. Nobody's hands are clean in this fallen world.
Faith, equally grief's source and its solace, is the center that cannot hold in this wintry novel. The principal characters are Catholic: the girl, lapsed and bitter; her father, widowed and guilt-wracked; the college counselor, a onetime novice and missionary; the dean's wife, left leaning but devoted to the Latin Mass; and errant clerics of all persuasions. The professor's wife, an anthropology professor, is the sole Protestant: a deracinated Mennonite, devout and matter-of-fact in her belief. The professor, of course, is secular through and through. But "faith" means more than just religious belief, and he proves himself a shockingly faithful father when his family comes under threat.
Toward the end of the book, the professor and the dean—both Marine veterans—cross paths and say what both "certainly hoped would be their ultimate goodbyes":
[Professor] Brookman gave him his hand and said, "Semper fi."
"Yes," Spofford answered. "Right."
Immediately Brookman realized that the choice of words, in the circumstances, in the present company, was awkward. Spofford's attempt to disappear the phrase was no less so. It was very painful.A knockout campus mystery, Death of the Black-Haired Girl is no less a first rate philosophical novel in which contradictory visions of faith and loyalty are pitted against one another in a grand cosmic brawl that will draw you in and leave you reeling.
Click the title or cover to view the catalog or make a request.
Review by Don Beistle