After reading a novel by Reginald Hill, it’s difficult to fathom why he is not a household name in the United States. Granted, his work is very much written for a British audience, full of colloquialisms and the like that will send even the most seasoned anglophile to the Internet to brush up on certain bits of slang. But this quality just makes his books more appealing.
"This is a story --- brilliantly plotted and told --- of tragedy, resurrection, revenge and redemption."
As with the best of the mystery/suspense genre, Hill concocts close-on studies of the human condition, using a puzzle or dire situation as a backdrop to wonderful effect, over the course of a veritable bookcase full of works. His Dalziel and Pascoe procedurals are his most popular, having spawned a British television series of almost equal popularity, while his Joe Sexsmith titles are somewhat lighter in tone but still wonderfully written. Then there are his stand-alone works, of which his latest may be his finest.
THE WOODCUTTER can be daunting in size, but is easy on the eye while challenging (in the best possible sense) to the mind. It is a very modern book in setting --- the lion’s share of it takes place in the year 2017 --- but it is, at its base, a fairy tale. The story's focus is a gentleman named Wolf Hadda --- to become known as the Woodcutter --- who is literally born next door to the manor rather than of it.
Wolf, the son of a groundskeeper, falls in love while still a teenager with the young Imogen, the modern-day equivalent of the princess in the Cumbrian castle. The two have a love affair that gets broken up by their parents. Imogen --- rather coldly, at that --- charges Wolf to perform three tasks if he is to win her heart. Wolf goes away for three years, does what he’s been told, returns a very changed and accomplished adult, and marries his heart’s desire. As it turns out, Wolf is very good at what he does, which is making money for himself and others, and becomes extremely wealthy. He and his wife live “happily ever after,” if that term is defined as being under 15 years in duration.
In the matter of a heartbeat, though, everything changes for Wolf. He is arrested and charged with a most reprehensible crime (and another that’s bad enough). He is tried, convicted and sentenced to prison, but not before a bungled escape attempt leaves him mutilated, crippled and in a coma for several months. When he awakens, he learns that Imogen has divorced him and married his attorney, and all that he formerly possessed is gone. While incarcerated, Wolf undergoes psychiatric counseling with a doctor who considers his protestations of innocence to be a symptom of the mental illness that led to his crime. And therein lies a conundrum. As long as Wolf denies his criminal actions, he will be considered a danger to others and to society at large; once he admits what he has done and atones for it, he will be on the road to recovery.
Wolf accordingly admits and atones, after which he is paroled in due course, returning to the family cottage that is but a stone’s throw away from where his in-laws sit, firmly if nervously ensconced. Like his father before him, Wolf takes up his ax as a woodcutter for hire. Though not welcomed by the locals, he makes the acquaintance of the local minister, who feels an odd and unwelcome attraction to Wolf despite his heinous reputation. The minister also discovers that Wolf is not all that he presents himself to be.
Far from being cowed, broken and impoverished, Wolf has aggressive plans, and somehow has the means to carry them out. Foremost among these would be determining who ruined his life and took everything from him. This he does in due course, whereby he begins plotting and executing a suitable revenge. His quests lead him to some surprising, uncomfortable and shocking truths, not only about those he loved and trusted, but also about himself.
Hill’s prose is informed by an older, more robust, more formal, and yes, more literary style. He is not in any particular hurry as he tells his tale, which spans decades. This is not to say that the book is padded or diverged by the whimsy of its author; be assured that everything you read and that Hill discloses is important to the story to a great or greater degree. You will need to pay attention to everything.
The best news is that the riveting attractiveness of Hill’s storytelling will compel you to do so. One could be tempted to take a shortcut and describe THE WOODCUTTER as a modern-day adaptation of THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO; indeed, Hill gives a nod and a wink to that work throughout. But it’s more than that. This is a story --- brilliantly plotted and told --- of tragedy, resurrection, revenge and redemption. Despite the grave subject matter, the dialogue is at times blisteringly funny, shot through with a dark gallows humor and turns of phrase that you will want to memorize and appropriate for your own conversation (and, yes, I have done so myself).
Whether you are unfamiliar with Hill’s work or have read every word the man has ever written --- or are at some point in between --- you will want to put THE WOODCUTTER at the top of your must-read list.
Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on August 25, 2011