Thursday, August 4, 2011

"Some day you will be old enough to start reading fairy tales again." - C.S. Lewis

The Woodcutter
by Reginald Hill

Despite his long and flourishing career, The Woodcutter was my introduction to the work of Reginald Hill. This is probably due to the fact that he is best known for a crime series with a daunting backlist. However, among his stand alone novels, Wikipedia tells me that he "frequently selects one writer or one oeuvre to use as a central organizing element of a given novel, such as one novel being a pastiche of Jane Austen's works, or another featuring elements of classical Greek myth." And that describes perfectly what he's done with The Woodcutter! It is a contemporary thriller without any fantastic elements, but it is dressed up in fairy tale tropes, making for an unusually interesting, layered read.

From the opening pages:
"Once upon a time, I was living happily ever after. That's right. Like in a fairy tale. How else to describe my life up till that bright autumn morning back in 2008?

I was the lowly woodcutter who fell in love with a beautiful princess glimpsed dancing on the castle lawn..."
The speaker is Wolf Hadda--Sir Wolf Hadda. He may have started life as a lowly woodcutter, but he's a self-made success story. Having prevailed at "three impossible tasks" to win the hand of his princess, in early middle age he's sitting on top of the world. On the above-referenced morning, when the police raid his home, as absurd as it seems, he's being accused of being a child pornographer! Things go from bad to worse, unbelievably worse, for the once high and mighty Wolf. In fact, much of the novel is comprised of sessions between himself and Elf--AKA prison psychologist Alva Ozigbo--as Wolf recounts the tale of his fall from grace.

There is so much more to this story than I possibly could or should summarize. Above is the merest tip of the iceberg of the tale being told. The novel switches back and forth between the perspectives of these two characters, and gradually, gradually, a major conspiracy unfolds. And were this simply a conventional thriller, it would have worked just fine for me. The plot was delightfully complex and chock-full of twists, turns, and jaw-dropping shockers. The characters were deftly-drawn and genuinely interesting people. The novel even has a well-developed sense of humor. Reading The Woodcutter was great fun.

And like a cherry on top of this excellent thriller, there were the fairy tale elements. Don't be confused, it IS a sometimes gritty thriller, not a fairy tale. Still, I had such a good time catching the many fairy tale references! It's really an achievement in creative writing. I will definitely be investigation some of Mr. Hill's backlist. Oh, and if anyone knows the title of his Jane Austen novel, please leave a note in the comments. That's exactly where I plan to start!


  1. Cure for All Diseases seems to be based on Austen's unfinished Sanditon. In his short story collection, There are no Ghosts in the Soviet Union, he has a lengthy short story called Poor Emma, based on Austen's character. The Price of Butcher's Meat also looks to have some Austenesk overtones. No, I did not know any of this (Google is a marvel), but as an avid Austen fan, I was curious what a crime writer could have in common with her, so I looked it up.

  2. Care, you have excellent research fu! Thanks for the info.

    Now, as a fellow Janeite, I urge you to check out the interview with David Liss posted above, if you have not already done so. His novel, The Twelfth Enchantment, is sure to be enjoyed by any Austen fan. I'm 300 pages in an loving it! I'll be done today.