By now just about the only character in the Sherlock Holmes canon who hasn’t had his or her own detective series is the Baskerville hound, and I’m sure someone’s considering that one as we speak. We’ve seen all sorts of Holmeses over the years, and with the recent book, the fringes of Baker Street are being combed for characters. It is hard to generate something new in such an avalanche of well-worn tropes, but H.B. Lyle has managed to do that quite cleverly in The Irregular: A Different Class of Spy, a first novel starring Wiggins, formerly the head of the Baker Street Irregulars. Wiggins is mentioned twice in the canon; the third time Watson either gets the name wrong or maybe there’s been a change at the top. But now Wiggins is an adult, he’s back from fighting the Boer in South Africa, and in the Tottenham Outrage of 1909 (which did happen) the policeman murdered is his best friend. Which leads him, eventually, into a partnership with Captain Vernon Kell, heading up a newly-formed Secret Service, primarily to stop the war preparations of the Hun.
One of the reasons the story is fresh is the way it blends Sherlockian exploits with the kind of stuff we see in Erskine Childers. The pre-war era is a perfect setting for the kind of dime novel derring do that we find here, and Lyle’s story is a classic mix of Russian anarchists and German Teutons. It provides a perfect contrast, as you might guess from its subtitle, for the Colonel Blimps of the British government, except perhaps for Kell’s Sandhurst contemporary, the self-serving and ambition head of the Board Of Trade, Winston ‘Soapy’ Churchill. In that sense Wiggins might be seen to be a prototype Harry Palmer.
And class plays a huge part in the story, both in the blindness of the British establishment, and in the relation of Wiggins and Kell. Kell meanwhile has his own troubles at home, with his suffragette wife Constance, who proves not only an effective agent, but is probably the most intriguing character in the novel, particularly when she is dealing his her husband’s naivete, especially about men of the ‘Grecian Persuasion’. Wiggins meanwhile is drawn to a Latvia laundress, Bella, while his partner in the Irregulars, Sal, reappears in his life and his friend’s wife appears to disappear. Lyle is good on backstories, and even the cameo by Holmes rings true.
If at times the plot is mechanical, and if the horseback finale seems designed with the development of a TV series, that’s not a fatal flaw. Yes, agile readers should have seen the identity of Arlekin, and they will realise who von Bork is when he reappears, as he must surely do. The climactic bomb seems somehow anti-climactic, its mastermind somehow less committed than we might have thought. But it’s an enjoyable read throughout, and fits nicely and without awkwardness into this crowded sub-genre.
The Irregular by H.B. Lyle
Hodder & Stoughton £17.99 ISBN 9781473655379
This review appeared first at Michael Carlson’s Irresistible Targets: crime fiction, film, and much more irresistibletargets.blogspot.com