Friday, December 17

The Woodcutter - Reginald Hill

Once upon a time I was living happily ever after.
That’s right. Like in a fairytale.
How else to describe my life up till that bright autumn morning back in 2008?I was the lowly woodcutter who fell in love with a beautiful princess glimpsed dancing on the castle lawn, knew she was so far above him even his fantasies could get his head chopped off, nonetheless when three seemingly impossible tasks were set as the price of her hand in marriage threw his cap in the ring and after many perilous adventures returned triumphant to claim his heart’s desire.
Here began the happily ever after, the precise extent of which is nowhere defined in fairy literature.
In my case it lasted fourteen years.

So, after a brief three-part prologue, begins this fascinating tale of suspense, triumph, loss, betrayal, revenge, restraint, excess and Machiavellian plotting.
In the space of half an hour the life of Sir Wilfred Hadda, more familiarly known as ‘Wolf,’ fell apart. Woken from sleep by the police, accompanied by television and press media, his response to the smug and sneering DI Medler who proffers a search warrant was impulsive and had far-reaching consequences – he punched the shorter man in the face.
Promptly arrested, Wolf’s attention is on the police tip-off to the media, a focus he doesn’t shift until his lawyer and long-time friend Toby Estover appears and redirects him to the grounds for the search warrant. What little thought Wolf had given it had been in the direction of fraud; DI Medler, though, in Vice. Specifically paedophilia.
Wolf’s initial relief is quickly checked by the appraising look Toby gave him, a look and an attitude Wolf was soon to find familiar and ubiquitous – somehow, despite his clarity that this was an area (unlike business) where he was wholly guilt-free, encrypted images are found on his computer. And in no time at all, things go from bad to extremely worse.
Always a writer of complex and cleverly plotted mysteries, The Woodcutter is a startlingly different kind of novel than Hill’s Dalziel and Pascoe series – still intelligently written and superbly crafted, it twists perception and assumption. Written in first person from Wolf’s point of view and in third person semi-omniscient, this reader at least was swayed first by Wolf’s version of events and then by the perspective of his psychologist, Alva Ozigbo, assigned to evaluate his fitness for parole. Is Wolf an innocent betrayed, or a child molester so horrified by his thoughts and fantasies that he’s in denial even to himself? And how did he, in the space of only a few short missing years, rise from his working class, penniless origins to financial and business success? These two questions lie at the centre of The Woodcutter, shaping and framing both the character of Wolf and the dense plotting of the novel.
Set in 2016, with the arrest happening eight years earlier, The Woodcutter’s plot is cleverly constructed, with retrospective chapters that lay out the evolution of his nightmare chronologically, written by Wolf for Alva as part of her assessment of his readiness to return to the world. The global financial crisis looms over the wilfully blind, largely unsuspecting financial sector in 2008 and provides impetus for this novel that could only have been set in the superficially egalitarian but still class dominated world of contemporary England.
There are some amazing quotes throughout the novel, predominantly Germanic – I was particularly struck by this, which articulates much of Wolf’s persona, by Heinrich Heine:

I am the most easygoing of men. All I ask from life is a humble thatched cottage, so long as there’s a good bed in it, and good victuals, fresh milk and butter, flowers outside my window, and a few beautiful trees at my doorway; and if the dear Lord cares to make my happiness complete, he might grant me the pleasure of seeing six or seven of my enemies hanging from those trees.
From the bottom of my compassionate heart, before they die I will forgive them all the wrongs they have visited on me in my lifetime – yes, a man ought to forgive his enemies, but not until he sees them hanging.

Pastoral, serene, surprising, confronting, occupied with revenge and justice, it might even have formed a template for this work that has caused me to view Hill, an author whose writing I have read for two decades with affection, appreciation and thorough enjoyment, in a new and more exalted light. If you want an internally coherent, intelligent, meticulously crafted, invisibly written, seamless, absorbing novel that combines, as I wrote in my opening, a “fascinating tale of suspense, triumph, loss, betrayal, revenge, restraint, excess and Machiavellian plotting” with all the elements of the very darkest of fairy tales (and is there any other kind?) then The Woodcutter is for you. - Alex

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