Friday, June 15, 2012

Crime Fiction: The Woodcutter by Reginald Hill

By the time he died in January 2012, British crime writer Reginald Hill had earned legions of fans worldwide for his engaging novels (and long-running TV series) featuring two improbably paired police detectives. Andy Dalziel (known as “Fat Andy,” but only behind his back) is opinionated, outspoken, sometimes rude and almost always politically incorrect; his university-educated, liberally oriented ally, Peter Pascoe, spends much of his time trying to minimize the damage his boss can inflict merely by walking through a room.

Hill was no one-trick pony, though. Given the appeal of his odd-couple series, it’s all too easy to overlook his other writing -- in particular his 15 standalone novels written over a period of 40 years. Readers who venture into this wooded area will be rewarded with a varied range of novels that encompass football hooliganism, the English Civil War, spy thrillers, collaborators during the Second World War, psychological thrillers, and in his final published work -- The Woodcutter (released last year in the States) -- the tortuous path of revenge.

Wilfred “Wolf” Hadda is, by any standard, a singular man. Rising from modest roots as a woodcutter’s son, he has carved out a successful business worth millions. He has homes in Holland Park, Devon, New York, Barbados and Umbria, and a private jet with which to reach them. Knighted for his business achievements, he is married to a vivacious and intelligent woman from a wealthy family, to the envy of all.

But without warning, one day his life suddenly comes crashing down around him. In the early hours of the morning police force their way into Hadda’s house, armed with a warrant and accompanied by a phalanx from the press. His computer is seized, and when the police find kiddie porn on it, he is arrested. Wolf Hadda is accused of being a pedophile, and a credit-care trail indicates payments to hotels and Internet porn sites -- adding to the increasing mountain of evidence incriminating Wolf. The press have a field day, and Hadda is disgraced.

As bad as that is, once convicted and imprisoned he finds his ordeal is only beginning. While in prison Wolf is faced with the death of his daughter, followed by his wife divorcing him to marry his former lawyer. Adding to his miseries, Wolf’s father suffers a stroke, and his best friend seems curiously detached from his tragedies. Wolf Hadda seems to be a contemporary Job, totally friendless in an unforgiving world.

Always a force to be reckoned with, and pushed to the brink in a series of events that would destroy most men, his years in prison have hardened and honed Wolf Hadda. Now he strives to convince prison psychiatrist Alva Ozigbo that he has become a new man; but first she must understand the old Wolf, and his history is far more complex, and far darker, than she can possibly imagine. Their relationship becomes a macabre dance of their intellects: Has Wolf actually reformed, or is he a consummate con artist? And is Alva up to the task of deciding which is which?

At last, after serving seven years in prison, Hadda is paroled, with only two thoughts on his mind: to learn the truth, and to exact revenge. Who did this to him, and why? How can he balance the scales of justice?

A cracking psychological thriller on a par with the best of them, The Woodcutter is also a sumptuous, layered novel about the complex interplay of forces that shape a troubled boy into a man. Wolf Hadda is dangerous, but no mere psychopath; think The Silence of the Lambs, but with the menace much more understated, and a protagonist with, er, much more flesh on his bones.

Hill’s own literary allusions can at times be maddening, seemingly intrusive to his story line; but they are unfailingly provocative, taking the reader in unexpected directions. The various plot lines converge as this book nears its climax, carrying the reader along effortlessly. The Woodcutter is, in short, a fine work, and a fitting grace note to one of the most accomplished crime-writing careers in recent history. Rest in peace, Reginald Hill. You did yourself proud. ◊

Jim Napier is a crime-fiction reviewer based in Quebec. His book reviews and author interviews have been featured in several Canadian papers as well as on such websites as Spinetingler Magazine, The Rap Sheet, Shots, Reviewing the Evidence, Crime Time and Type M for Murder. Napier also has an award-winning crime-fiction site, Deadly Diversions.

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Blogger Barbara said...

This was one of my favorite books last year. Masterful writing and almost unbearable suspense.

Saturday, June 16, 2012 at 7:15:00 AM PDT  
Blogger PattisPages said...

I've read several favorable reviews of this book, but I just didn't find it that compelling. Sorry to hear, though, that such a prolific and respected author has passed away.

Friday, July 20, 2012 at 12:41:00 PM PDT  

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