The Woodcutter

I love good crime fiction, but I’m often reluctant to try new crime fiction authors. For one thing, there are so many of them, there’s enough popular crap in the genre (as in any genre) that I just get overwhelmed and refuse to take a risk. Plus, so many good crime novelists are ridiculously prolific that I fear falling in love with too many of their books. How on earth will I make time for them all? But good crime fiction is  one of my favorite kinds of comfort reading (Is that completely weird?), so I do watch for recommendations and try to dip into some new authors now and then. Both Elaine and Catherine have spoken highly of Reginald Hill, so I’ve been intending to give him a try for a long while. When his new book, the standalone novel The Woodcutter, showed up on Netgalley, I had to give it a try.

The book starts out as a fairly typical story of a man falsely accused. In this case, the man is Sir Wilfred Hadda (aka Wolf), the son of a woodcutter from Cumbria who has pulled himself up by his bootstraps and won the heart of the princess in the castle near his childhood home. It all goes to pieces when Wolf is accused of financial improprieties and pedophilia. But Hill quickly throws the reader off kilter by revealing that the narrative we’re reading is Wolf’s own version of events, as given to his psychiatrist, Alva Ozigbo (aka Elf). The first half of the book, which focuses on Wolf’s past and his eventual imprisonment, as well as Dr. Ozigbo reflections on his case, is constructed so that the reader doesn’t know what to believe. I changed my mind at every turn about Wolf’s guilt. Hill uses a lot of fairy tale imagery, which added to the feeling of falseness and uncertainty.

The last half of the book, after Wolf’s release from prison, reverts to a more standard thriller plotline, with lots of nods to The Count of Monte Cristo, a book which I did not much like. I liked this better, partly because it’s shorter, but also because there’s less celebration of revenge. I also loved that it’s not always clear what Wolf is doing and why he’s doing it. He’s plotting something, that’s for sure, but he’s not the only devious person in the novel. As the clarity increased, the novel lost some of its intrigue, but it remained sufficiently entertaining throughout. There was a rather sensational twist toward the end that I haven’t quite made up my mind about. (I’ve long been annoyed with the “shocking twist” trend, and I can’t help but think this was added for shock value because I’m not convinced that it explains enough to warrant its inclusion.)

Wolf as a character is mostly successful. He has an appeal that draws everyone in to a degree that I found improbable after a while. And the romance felt unnecessary and unbelievable—it’s meant to demonstrate Wolf’s magnetism, but I think other motivations, justice or mercy, would have been more interesting and easier for me to accept. I did really enjoy the priest who tries to minister to Wolf while also looking out for the interests of his parish. I love it when authors write likable priests who aren’t soppy and even have a sense of humor. The bad guys seem real in that most of them are motivated by money, security, sex, and so on; these aren’t vile sadists. They’re not good people, but most of the problem is that they’re selfish, and they let that lead them astray. The nature of the characters’ lapses vary enough that many of them can’t be easily fixed as heroes or villains.

This was definitely a good enough book that I’m going to keep Reginald Hill in mind for future crime cravings. Of course, being a crime writer, he’s prolific and has written a couple of series. So finding him is a mixed blessing. Lots of good reading possibilities, but too many to choose from! If any of you are fans, I’d love to know which books are the best ones and how important it is to read the Dalziel and Pascoe or the Joe Sixsmith books in order?

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16 Responses to The Woodcutter

  1. diane says:

    I saw this on NetGalley and now it seems to be gone?? I was too slow. Thanks for sharing your thoughts; its seem like a mystery that is worth a try.

    • Teresa says:

      I think a lot of publishers pull their galleys around the release date, which makes sense. It’s worth reading if you run across it elsewhere.

  2. Jenny says:

    My dad loves Reginald Hill and I think has read all the Dalziel and Pascoe books, some multiple times. (I will say that he and I have somewhat different standards for escapist fiction, though.) Glad you enjoyed this!

    • Teresa says:

      Have you tried any of them? I’ve been trying to decide whether you’d like it. I think you’d like the first half because of the layers and questions of reliability, but the women–and Wolf’s uncanny magnetism–might annoy you.

      • Jenny says:

        No, I haven’t, and I’m not sure why. I got some negative impression somehow and just never picked one up. But I like lots of the same mysteries my dad does, so maybe I’ll give it a whirl sometime.

  3. I must try this one, I enjoy crime fiction where we keep changing our minds about the inocence (or not) of the culprit.

  4. litlove says:

    I’ve only read some of the Dalziel and Pascoe novels (and those not in order) but I enjoyed them very much. I always got the impression that those were his best ones.

    • Teresa says:

      I’m glad to hear they work out of order and that you enjoyed them. It’s a lot nicer when the order doesn’t matter and I can just grab what I find when I’m in the mood for that author.

  5. I’ve read a lot of the Dalziel & Pascoes and enjoyed them, but have lapsed over the past few years so am behind. Totally agree that really good crime fiction is a joy.

  6. Ellen Rhudy says:

    Sounds like our feelings on crime fiction are pretty similar. I look at it as comfort reading, but sometimes I’m hesitant to check out a new author for fear I’ll have trouble reading anything else until I’ve made it through their backlist. One of the things I love about Dennis Lehane (besides the amazing writing & plotting) is that his bibliography is manageable. I may have to check out Reginald Hall…too bad his book is off of netgalley now, but this is a good reminder that it may be worth looking into reading & reviewing more crime on my blog.

    • Teresa says:

      Exactly! I don’t want to have to stress over a long backlist, especially when there’s a series that benefits from being read in order. Jenny is a big Lehane fan, but I’ve only listened to the audio of Shutter Island (and a trailer for the movie made the twist bleeding obvious to me, which lessened the impact). I do want to read the Kinzie and Gennaro books and even have one on my shelf.

  7. Juxtabook says:

    I’m glad you’ve tried a Reginald Hill at last! This is one I’ve not read so I can’t comment. For a genre writer he can be very odd and unpredictable – which is probably good. I read the Dalziel & Pascoes out of order with no problem. My favourite of those I’ve read (and I haven’t read them all) is On Beulah Height and my least favourite is Arms and the Women. The Joe Sixsmith books are lovely – less gritty, and Sixsmith is just delightfully daft. Both Joe and Dalziel & Pascoe appear in some of the short stories in There Are No Ghosts in the Soviet Union and Other Stories.

    • Teresa says:

      Thank you for putting him on my radar and for these suggestions. The first half of this was definitely odd and unpredictable, and I enjoyed that aspect of it very much.

  8. Jan Eaton says:

    I’ve read all the Dalziel & Pascoe books and much prefer them to his Joe Sixsmith series. I’d say read them in order if you can though. They’re also excellent as unabridged audio books.

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