A man pulls into a state park to get some fresh air before a long drive home and encounters another, more sinister, man beating his confused and frightened dog. Reason escapes and soon enough the first man has savagely beaten the second to death. Thus is the action that sets the stage for Scott Spencer’s Man in the Woods.
Man in the Woods uses the idea of extreme circumstance to generate a conversation about character and consequences. The primary subjects of this study are Paul Phillips and Kate Ellis, the killer himself and his devoted girlfriend. Paul is an old-fashioned type, a carpenter who works with his hands to make a living, needless of modern day creature comforts and harboring an unflinching live-and-let-live worldview. While Paul is somewhat straightforward in character, Kate is more complicated. As a recovering alcoholic, Kate has found fame and fortune by publishing a bestseller about her experiences. She has found God and religion in the recovery process, but harbors no illusion that she is now some pious aficionado of faith. She and Paul live simply and serenely in upstate New York, up until the moment Paul commits his crime.
After the killing, the novel transitions into an examination of consequences, much in the grain of Dostoevsky’s Crime and Punishment. First, because his guilt is undetected, Paul is forced to reckon with the consequences of killing another human being in a world that is wholly indifferent to such an act. Paul reacts by alternately easing his conscience with good deeds and convincing himself that because he saved a dog in the process, his deed must have been positively received by the cosmos. Throughout each reaction, however, Paul is ultimately left empty, hinting to the reader that Paul’s fate has not yet been decided.
In his analysis of Kate, however, Spencer allows himself to examine the crime from a different vantage point. As a recovering alcoholic, Kate understands the atrocities the human species is capable of. In fact, throughout the novel Kate recalls the painful lows of her life while assisting her fellow AA attendees with their own personal demons. The net result is a psyche that is preconditioned to the terrible act her beloved companion commits and the comparative grace with which she handles the situation does not come without precedent. Kate’s struggle then is not how to love the person who has committed the crime; she is well-trained to hate the crime, not the criminal. Instead, Kate struggles with protecting Paul, the man she loves, from both himself and the law.
Overall, Man in the Woods is highly recommended to lovers of suspense who are looking for a little more depth in a novel. In fact, once the flawed and mysterious William Claff has taken his last breath the action of the novel essentially ceases; however, the end result is a fascinating read.