The Woodcutter by Reginald Hill


“Wolf” Hadda rose from his birth as the son of a woodcutter, or rather a groundskeeper for a wealthy English Lord, in the Cumbrian countryside, to business mogul married to the daughter of that wealthy landowner and back down below his original station to prisoner and parolee, reviled by the Cumbrian villagers who’d begrudged him a trifling respect as local boy made good when he was at the height of his business success. Fairy tale, perhaps, but this is the kind of story that continues beyond the traditional “and then they lived happily ever after”, in keeping with real life.

Wilfred Hadda is nicknamed “Wilf” to distinguish himself from his father Wilfred who is called “Fred”; ‘Wolf’ is a nickname given him by the local laird. The family moved to Cumbria when Wilf was in nappies to help care for Aunt Caroline, who was in the early stages of Alzheimers his father got a job working for the local laird as groundskeeper and woodcutter while his mother served as companion to the aunt. His mother died when Wilf was only six, and Wilf ran wild after that, his father being too busy to watch him as he was out of the house from early breakfast to “tea”1, leaving only the progressively more confused Aunt Caroline. Charming as a boy and more so as a man, Wilf endears himself to those around him effortlessly and without smarminess; children don’t mind getting punched in the nose, teachers let him slide by on the bare minimum of work, the laird lets Wilf marry his “princess” daughter and business ventures fall into his lap.

All his entrepreneurial empire comes crashing down around his ears one morning some years after his marriage, when the police arrive with a warrant to search his house for computer files pertaining to child pornography. Even this might have dissipated with a glimpse of the truth, but Wilf’s hot temper gets the better of him and he clocks the officer in charge not once but twice, then flees into traffic when he’s let out on bail…straight into the front of a bus. Wilf wakes up from his coma nine months later to find that all his wealth has evaporated, his wife is filing for divorce aided by Wilf’s lawyer (and later marries that same lawyer) and he has himself lost an eye, three fingers from one hand and the use of one of his legs. Not only has his life and career and love dissolved into mist, now that he’s awake, he can stand trial for the original child pornography charge.

Seven years into his prison term, he gets an avant garde prison psychologist, Alva Ozigbo, who is willing to work with him in greater depth than previous medical professionals. After several months, he breaks down and cries out to her for help in acknowledging what he has done and healing himself; her testimony gains him early release, though not soon enough to see his father or daughter again. He returns home to Cumbria, where only the young and idealistic vicar befriends him as part of his pastoral flock. Wolf sets about finding out for himself just what happened while he was in a coma, and just who doublecrossed whom–it will come as no surprise to those aware of the social dynamics in the U.K. that there’s a fair bit of class differential behind the plotting.

Overall, I liked the book well enough to devour it–all 528 pages–in an afternoon. I’m not entirely convinced by the plot, but that might be my own unfamiliarity with thriller tropes and devices rather than a real failing in the plot. The characterization is very good; Hill does enough back story, world building and delving into motivation that I can understand why the characters interact the way they do. Too bad the plot itself isn’t that well developed! I can believe someone would be just that charming, but Wolf seems curiously unaware of his own ability to influence others, despite utilizing a great deal of psychological manipulation of other characters, to be sure, including one who ought to know better.

I’m not sure I buy all the plot twists, although I appreciate Wolf would seek some sort of revenge against the people who landed him in jail, and attempt to clear his name. While a number of the secondary bad characters are a bit cardboardy or stereotyped, I appreciate the fact that Hill allows the vicar and psychologist to first judge Wolf based on the crime of which he’s accused, and assume his motivations are those of a criminal then gradually become more uncomfortable with that presumption of malice, and evil deeds/intent, and finally helping him redeem his good name despite recognizing how they’ve been used for his ends.

As an example, the vicar stumbles across a case of expensive liquor (having purchased a bottle of cheap plonk for Wolf as a Christmas present2) and a tin box full of packets of £50 notes. He mentions it to the psychiatrist–the only way either of them can conceive of Wolf acquiring this money is through some criminal action–and the psychiatrist drives up from London to pay a call on Wolf. He puts her in his bedroom3, complete with liquor and tin box, and returns downstairs to make tea/lay out a plate of cookies, knowing the first thing she’ll do is look for the suspicious items which the vicar has mentioned…and he’s already tucked a note into the tin box which reads “Your tea’s getting cold.” for her to find as soon as she opens it. The two converge on Wolf’s cottage, and he explains the thoroughly mundane origins of the money: in palmier days of yore, he sent his dad £1000 per month for a number of years, which his father promptly withdrew from the bank in cash and stuffed into that old tin box. That money was not considered part of Wolf’s estate when he was imprisoned, and his creditors were unable to lay hands on it as they didn’t know it existed (as indeed it didn’t belong to him at the time!)

For once, coming up with a suggestion of what authors to read next is easier than describing the book itself: John Hart, John Connolly’s Charlie Parker books, and Michael Koryta’s books; though the two I read had a supernatural plot twist, the overall tone seems similar to me. While the blurb on the cover describes the protagonist’s life as a fairy tale, I wouldn’t go so far as to describe it thus, rather that it has many of the tropes of fairy tales. Read it for the characters, and the setting; just don’t think too hard about the plotting.

1early supper, for Americans
2Wolf appears to be making do on his pension, being unemployable as both a convict and a cripple
3nothing unprofessional going on; Wolf’s planning to sleep in another room

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