Before he established his reputation with the “Dalziel and Pascoe” series of detective novels, Reginald Hill wrote several standalone thrillers under the pen-name Patrick Ruell. Many of these have been re-published over the years under his own name.
“The Long Kill”, mostly set in the Lake District, is the story of Jaysmith, a hired assassin working for a shady department of the British government. Jaysmith’s technique is the long kill, taking out his target with a rifle from a considerable distance. He has a reputation as a hit-man that is second to none.
But when he is sent to the Lake District to shoot a victim sitting in his cottage garden, he misses – for the first time ever. Jaysmith has already been told that his eyesight isn’t quite what it used to be. Missing the shot persuades him to retire, seemingly to spend the rest of his days peacefully fellwalking in Lakeland.
But, of course, retiring from shady government departments isn’t quite as easy as all that. Jaysmith has a sinister boss, Jacob, who is none too keen on the prospect of losing his favoured killer.
It gets even more complicated when Jaysmith finds himself getting romantically involved with Anya, the daughter of the man he was sent to kill.
And that relationship provides much of the mystery of the novel. His target, Bryant, seems to be just a country solicitor. Jaysmith is baffled as to just why his paymaster would want the man dead?
Jaysmith finds himself in the position of defending the man he was sent to kill, threatened by other hit-men from Jacob’s department. The book comes to a particularly tense and dramatic conclusion, which leaves you on the edge of your seat. The ending will live in your mind long after you’ve closed the book.
“The Long Kill”, which is full of moral ambiguities, has a wonderful Lake District setting, mostly based around Grasmere and St John’s in the Vale. Hills and valleys where killers might be so easily concealed. The author makes even Keswick seem a threatening place to be.
Reginald Hill is very good at summoning up the atmosphere of the Lakes. He never just parachutes in local colour. You get the Lakeland fells and villages as they really are in a way few other others can match. The scenes where Jaysmith goes fellwalking are superbly written, as a fellwalker myself I can attest to their accuracy.
“The Long Kill” is thriller writing in the classic tradition – the tale of a man who lives outside the law, but is sanctioned by sinister forces within it. Not quite the tale of an innocent in peril, given Jaysmith’s background as a hired killer, but the story of a hero who tries to bring order to a chaotic world that is beyond his control.
Interestingly, Reginald Hill revisited some of the same themes in his masterpiece final novel “The Woodcutter” (see blogs passim), also drawing in elements from his other early novel “Fell of Dark”.
“The Long Kill” is a particularly visual novel, its scenes leaping out from its pages. It would make a terrific film.