Through a long, convoluted maze, Reginald Hill leads the reader through decades of mystery and intrigue in his 2011 thriller The Woodcutter. The prolific crime writer draws from his Cumbrian background in his tale of a young woodcutter’s son who defies his humble origins and wins the landowner’s daughter. The book is targeted for discussion by one of my book clubs.
Wealthy, handsome, and knighted, Sir Wilfred Hadda – known as Wolf from his wild boyhood days – is almost fatally injured when a bus stops him as he tries to escape arrest. Miraculously recovering, minus an eye and a few fingers, Wolf faces the betrayal of friends and family and is jailed for crimes he did not commit, losing his wife, his daughter, his business, and his good name.
And the story begins. Mirroring the “Count of Monte Cristo” book he prominently displays in his prison cell, Wolf plots his escape and his revenge. Through interviews with a young prison psychiatrist, Alva Ozigbo (called Elf), Wolf reveals his background, his pursuit of Imogene – the love of his life, and his successes. Recognizing that the truth will not set him free, Wolf reverts to deceiving the doctor – convincing her that he is repentant and admitting to crimes he never actually committed. Gaining an early release from prison on the doctor’s recommendation, he returns to his roots in the woods and plots the destruction of his betrayers. When Wolf’s traitorous friends begin to die, Hill inserts enough ambiguity to make the reader wonder about Wolf’s innocence.
The story is constantly shifting perspectives and timeframes, and can be hard to follow in the beginning. Eventually, the plot gains a rhythm of pursuit, sprinkled with murders and lies driving the theme of vengeance. Russian drug dealers, international spy rings, and shady finances add to the mystery of Wolf. Supporting characters follow models of movie villains and spymasters, but no one is who they seem.
If you can manage to get past the first confusing chapters and have the stamina for a marathon read, you will be rewarded with a fast-moving and intriguing mystery from a master of the genre.
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