By Jessica Mann
The school I went to, nowadays fashionable and full of girls with famous surnames, wasn’t at all glamorous when I was there. Middle class girls were sent there for a fiercely academic education. Most of us also acquired an accent like the Queen’s and a tone of (usually unjustified) authority and conviction. The almost ineradicable “St. Paul’s voice” can be off-putting and at our first meeting, forty years ago, mine did put off Reginald Hill, an Oxford graduate who still spoke like a northerner and looked like a Viking. As we continued to meet at crime writers’ events, and later at Detection Club dinners, we became good friends. His quiet, sardonic comments were a delight in real life just as his wit and irony are a delight in his fiction.
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I won’t pretend to have enjoyed all his books equally. But when The Woodcutter arrived I was bowled over. Here was one of the best crime novelists of our time producing one of his best and most original novels 40 years after he’d published his first (A Clubbable Woman). It had a completely new subject and treatment and didn’t seem to repeat anything from earlier work. Fresh ideas were still bubbling up.
This stand-alone novel is still in the thriller genre, containing crimes, clever clues and eventual revelation, but it’s much more than that. The protagonist is Sir Wilfred Hadda, a self made tycoon. “Once upon a time I was living happily ever after”, he says. But then he was charged with financial crimes on an epic scale, and with computer child porn offences. Wilfred alias Wolf was convicted and sent to prison. His teenage daughter died. His wife left him for his best friend. From the peak of wealth and happiness he fell to rock bottom. When the book begins he has served his prison sentence. Alone and broke, he lives as a recluse in the wilds of Cumbria where he had grown up. He is haunted by his past and plots revenge on the associates who cheated him and the treacherous wife whose memory is “burnt on his soul like a shadow on a wall left by an atomic explosion.”
But the prison psychiatrist, a young woman, is still determined to break through Hadda’s mental and physical defences. She invades his rustic privacy with her questions, answers and sympathy. Watching from the outside, the reader switches between believing that Wolf was an innocent man framed by unidentified enemies, and thinking that he really had been a dangerous criminal. The final denouement is a satisfactory surprise.
I can hear Reginald Hill’s voice in The Woodcutter, with his characteristic combination of clever wordplay, sharp observation, and unflinching realism about humanity’s darker side. The twin themes, poor boy makes good, and how are the mighty fallen, both suited him perfectly. It’s a worthy culmination to a valuable life’s work.
Jessica Mann is a novelist, journalist, broadcaster and author of non-fiction, with some twenty crime novels to date. As a journalist, she has written mostly for the Daily and the Sunday Telegraph, and contributed a weekly column to The Western Morning News. Her book reviews have appeared in a wide variety of newspapers and magazines, and at present she reviews crime fiction for The Literary Review. Her latest book is one of non-fiction, The Fifties Mystique, published by Quartet.