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?