By Reginald Hill
Harper, $25.99, 528 pages
The woodcutter is a man of humble origins who achieves remarkable success in business and suddenly finds himself in jail on horrifying charges of pedophilia and corruption, deserted by his wife and friends, facing lifetime imprisonment. Wolf Hadda is entirely alone and silent in his misery. It takes seven years before prison psychiatrist Alva Ozigbo slowly persuades him to talk about a massive injustice that he can escape only by acknowledging his guilt.
“The Woodcutter” is a masterful mystery, and Reginald Hill has done a remarkable job of developing the character of the man called Wolf. He reaches far into his character’s childhood and then teenage passion for Imogen, a young woman who is as ruthless as she is rich. She becomes the wife of Wolf when he becomes not only socially acceptable to her, but is also honored as Sir Wilfred Hadda. When he is reviled and disgraced by hideous accusations, Imogen is the first to walk out.
Not only that, but she promptly gets a divorce and marries Wolf’s expensive attorney who also has turned his back on his once prize client.
As Wolf recalls it, “Once upon a time I was living happily ever after.” Over 14 years, he had become a multimillionaire with a private jet and homes in London, New York and Barbados. He had a daughter and became the recipient of a knighthood. It all ends on an autumn morning when police, led by Chief Inspector Medill, burst into Wolf’s London home and arrest him. Wolf doesn’t help his case by punching Medill hard enough to split his lip and break his nose. But that is only the beginning of the nightmare that includes a traffic accident that disfigures and cripples Wolf. He winds up silent and sullen in Parkleigh prison.
That is where Alva, a 28-year-old psychologist, finds him. She considers him “psychologically interesting,” which is a considerable understatement.
It is her theory that by persuading him to provide a “significant narrative” of the mental and emotional journey that had brought him to prison, she might be able to “lead him to a moment of self knowledge when … he would draw back in horror from the monstrous apparition before him.”
She begins by accepting that Wolf is guilty but in denial, and it is the chronicling of her conversations with him that carries the weight of the book. In painting a riveting picture of the scene, Mr. Hill is careful to leave open the possibility that the beleaguered Wolf may be guilty of the crimes with which he is charged, and that his retreat into silence may indeed demonstrate a psychological collapse.
As the relationship and the trust grow between Wolf and Alva, Wolf does indeed confide in her and admit his responsibility for his guilt. It is that admission that she uses to obtain his parole, which of course is what Wolf had in mind from the day she walked into his cell.
The story of the paroled Wolf takes him back to his childhood home in Cumbria where he lives in seclusion, dutifully checking in with his probation officer, and developing a friendship with a local minister.
Yet Wolf remains not only a man of mystery but is perceived as a very real threat by those who stood by and witnessed his downfall. They include the coldblooded Imogen, now wed to his former attorney, who lives nearby. The couple are convinced that Wolf is seeking vengeance, and of course they are right. The same drive that made him successful in his previous life makes him an invincible enemy.
Like dominos, his persecutors fall, and not even Imogen can escape. Yet Wolf is wily enough to operate below the radar screen of probation and suspicion suspended over him. He has an answer for every question. He also has become a man of interest to his psychologist, who increasingly is convinced of his innocence. Alva conducts some investigations of her own and comes up with evidence of the appalling truth that Wolf seeks to reveal.
Wolf discovers what he has come to suspect, that he has been betrayed by those he trusted, who were prepared to see him dishonored and imprisoned for what amounted to selfish economic reasons.
They never thought Wolf would get out. But he has, and now they are afraid, and they should be.
Readers will not miss the presence of Dalziel and Pascoe, the Yorkshire detectives who are usually prominent characters in Mr. Hill’s many books. Wolf Hadda is a character who commands attention, and the book is so well plotted and written that despite its length, it will be difficult for readers to put down.