“As a boy he spied for Sherlock Holmes. As a man he must save the Empire.” This debut novel by H.B. Lyle is an intriguing blend of fact and fiction, and well worth reading.
04/02/19How do you choose the next theme for our wonderful crime fiction book group in a democratic manner? This time we stuck a pin in the alphabet, the pin landed on the letter L, so L it was. To make it easier to decide, there just needed to be an L in the author’s name or in the title. Even a character with a name containing L would do at a pinch.
I therefore figuratively stuck a pin in the L section of the book shelf and landed on The Irregular, by H B Lyle, which was published in 2017. I must admit the frontispiece did not immediately appeal to me, but when I read the blurb I was intrigued.
H B Lyle is a Londoner. This is his first work of fiction after spending time writing scripts for feature films. I will not give away too much if I quote some of the blurb – slightly paraphrased as always:
'As a boy, Wiggins spied for Sherlock Holmes. As a man, he must save the empire.
London, 1909: the British Empire seems invulnerable. But Captain Vernon Kell, head of counterintelligence at the War Office, knows better.
In Russia, revolution; in Germany, an arms race; in London, the streets are alive with foreign terrorists, anarchists, spies and infiltrators.
Kell wants to set up a Secret Service, but to convince his political masters, he needs proof of a threat - and to find that, he needs an agent he can trust, someone who knows the streets, not the playing fields of Eton. He needs someone who can work undercover in a munition’s factory. He needs Wiggins.’
Initially I did not take to Wiggins or to the story. He seemed just another East End thug working the streets of London. But on and off he showed glimpses of humanity, like when he is pursuing a fugitive for his loan shark master, catches said fugitive and finds him to be a starving terrified foreign boy, whom he lets go. And loses his job in the process.
At the start he refuses to work for Kell – “I don’t do official” he says – but when his best friend is killed in a pointless robbery, by what in those days were colloquially known as 'Rooskies' (Russians) he changes his mind because he sees a way of pursuing his quest to catch his friend’s killer while at the same time working for Kell to uncover a plot by the agents of the Kaiser.
Wiggins is highly intelligent, cunning, street smart and hugely observant, qualities that he tries to teach to his master Kell, who has trouble convincing his own superiors of a plot. They seem to find it difficult to believe in the un-gentleman non-cricket art of spying. In fact, Vernon Kell is a historical figure, the first chief of the intelligence service, MI5. And many of the events described in the book are also based on factual occurrences.
Interspersed with the present-day 1909 story we get Wiggins’s backstory, as well as that of the mysterious Latvian woman with whom he falls in love. These backstories are interesting and they give depth and humanity to the tale. In fact, for me, they saved the book in that just as I was reaching the point of throwing it down the first backstory appeared and I was intrigued - again.
This is a very unusual story: intriguing, clever, occasionally irritating, a tad long but certainly worth reading. As well as the mystery part of it, I found the descriptions of the social equality of the Edwardian age very real. They added another dimension to it. I recommend the book… but be patient, it takes a little work to get into.
If you love reading crime fiction and thrillers, why not come along to one of our book group meetings? We don’t have a set reading list; instead we pick a reading ‘theme’ each month, which is entirely optional. At our meetings we discuss the books we’ve read and enjoyed. We meet on the third Friday of each month at Oundle Library @ 2.30pm. Everyone welcome.