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Wolf Hadda is the son of a Cumbrian forester who has become a millionaire businessman and married the beautiful daughter of the local aristocrat who employed his father. His carefully constructed world comes crashing down in 2008, when he is arrested on charges of being involved in an international paedophile ring; while attempting to escape the police he runs under a bus and is seriously injured. But the action of THE WOODCUTTER really begins in 2015 when Wolf, now in a maximum security prison, encounters the psychiatrist Alva Ozigbo. Following lengthy sessions with her, he is released and begins a quest for the truth and revenge.
The first, blatantly obvious, observation to make of Hill's latest is that it is a one-off, a non-series book. For those who, like me, worship at the shrine of Dalziel and Pascoe, Ellie and Wield, the arrival of a non-series Hill is always something of a disappointment. It is equally obvious that this reaction is completely unfair and should not be allowed to interfere with any critical assessment; but as Alva Ozigbo often points out in the course of this book, our own motives need careful examination! And it still appears a legitimate question to ask why Hill felt the need to write a non-series book? What is it that he is attempting to do which could not be done within the confines of a Dalziel and Pascoe? Answering these questions should tell us much about the book.
In the first place, and mostly obviously, Hill wants to return to his beloved Cumbria. The landscape of Cumbria is an enormous presence in the book and Wolf Hadda is a figure formed out of that landscape. In some senses one of the morals of the tale might be about the dangers of leaving a home to which one has such an umbilical tie. Secondly Hill wants to go deep into psychological, indeed psychiatric questions. The relationship between Hadda and Ozigbo, or Wolf and Elf as they are nicknamed, dominates the first 150 pages, and I felt at times that I had wandered into a Minette Walters book, for this is territory which she has made her own. And this does not function to Hill's advantage because, great as he is, he does not do this kind of thing quite as well as Walters. But then as the book proceeds and we enter different territory, one realises that it is not intended to be convincing. In fact, the book, and certainly Hadda himself, are unconvinced by psychiatric explanations. Thirdly, Hill wants to write a revenge narrative. THE WOODCUTTER's story is essentially that of a man seeking revenge. Clearly this would not be possible to do within the confines of a series book. And it is in this area that the book scores most highly. Once Wolf is released from prison and embarks upon his quest the narrative exerts a vice-like grip which is maintained throughout the 500-plus pages, until the dramatic climax, and beyond into the satisfying epilogue.
Although I have been concentrating on the differences, there are of course many aspects of the book which are present in Hill's series writing. The wonderful prose style for a start. The literateness that Hill has always possessed to an almost unique degree, certainly among living mystery writers. The gift for characterisation, which is seen in both his major and minor characters. His extraordinary technical skills, especially in regard to points of view, which he handles with dazzling mastery, even the rarely seen second person, which Hill cheekily calls attention to. The philosophising, which here mainly takes the form of musing on the perennially fascinating question of free will. The idiomatic and sparkling dialogue (this is the sole area where Wolf does stand in for Dalziel to some extent). The vivid flashes of humour. And above all the ability to create a riveting narrative. For large parts of the book one is not sure what sort of story one is reading, and it is only when one finishes that one sees the whole design.
There are, in my view, a couple of problems with THE WOODCUTTER. One relates to the treatment of psychiatric issues discussed previously. The second is the treatment of the world of the security services, which is all a little perfunctory and even clichéd - there is even perhaps a lack of really probing political, let alone moral, questioning here. But then it could be objected that to have done so would have diverted Hill's attention from his central foci. I have left to the end one other facet of THE WOODCUTTER which Hill achieves triumphantly. It is a love story. Or several love stories. Of a man for a woman, of a woman falling in love, and of a man for his homeland. There are probably very few writers who would able to carry these off convincingly, while at the same time writing a gripping and compelling mystery. Do I think THE WOODCUTTER is in the highest rank of the Hill canon? No. Is THE WOODCUTTER a terrific mystery, a truly compelling novel and a must-read? You bet.
§ Nick Hay lives in Birmingham, UK where he spends a lot of his time reading mysteries (and trying to write about them).
Reviewed by Nick Hay, September 2010
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