The Irregular by H. B. Lyle

The Blurb On The Back:

The streets taught him.

Sherlock Holmes trusted him.

The Secret Service wants him.

The Empire needs him.

LONDON, 1909: The British Empire seems invulnerable.  But Captain Vernon Kell, head of counter-intelligence at the War Office, knows better.  In Russia, revolution; in Germany, an arms race; in London, the streets are alive with foreign terrorists.

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.

Kell needs Wiggins.  Trained as a child by Kell’s old friend Sherlock Holmes – he led a gang of urchin investigators known as the Baker Street Irregulars – Wiggins is an ex-soldier with an expert line in deduction and the cunning of a born street fighter.

Wiggins turns down the job – he “don’t do official”.  But when his best friend is killed by Russian anarchists, Wiggins sees that the role of secret agent could take him toward his sworn revenge.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

It’s 1909.  Captain Vernon Kell has been tasked by the Department of War with forming a counter-intelligence unit after the German navy is suspected to be developing technology eerily similar to Britain’s.  Certain that there’s a leak in Woolwich naval yard, he’s sent two of his best agents undercover there, only for both to be murdered.

With limited resources and his political masters dubious that there’s any German treachery, Kell consults retired detective, Sherlock Holmes for advice and is steered towards Wiggins, the former head of the Baker Street Irregulars and an ex-soldier who’s familiar with Holmes’s deduction methods while having the street smarts that Kell needs.

Unfortunately Wiggins doesn’t fancy working for the establishment.  But that all changes when his police officer friend is murdered by Russian anarchists in a payroll robbery gone wrong and he becomes convinced that the police have missed a suspect.  Seeing a chance to take advantage of official resources for his private investigation, Wiggins plunges into a world of socialists, anarchists, spies and violence that reaches from the slums of the East End to the pinnacle of West End society …

B. Lyle’s debut historical thriller is a clever but uneven and at times clunky affair that marries the febrile anti-German atmosphere of 1909 with a minor character from the Holmes canon but while Kell and Wiggins have an interesting odd couple relationship that holds promise and I loved Kell’s no-nonsense, Suffragist wife Constance, some of the twists were predictable and the flashback scenes interrupted the pace.

Lyle has transformed Wiggins from little more than a name in Sherlock Holmes into a fully-fledged character with an interesting backstory.  There’s promise in his history with Sally (who I’d like to see more of) and although his romance with the enigmatic Bela is predictable, I liked how it fleshed him out.  Central to the story is his relationship with Kell, which runs along nicely with their growing friendship proving more convincing than Wiggins’ relationship with the hapless Bill (who’s little more than a plot point).  Constance makes for an interesting third in the relationship as well, more grounded than her husband and willing to tease him for his stuffiness.  Lyle has a good sense of period and I enjoyed the slang and the differences within London’s geography and social attitudes while I’m a sucker for a good Holmes cameo and for fiction that incorporates actual people from the period.

However I found Bela to be far too predictable a character and the way Lyle incorporates flashbacks to her previous life was a little clunky (indeed, I found that all of the flashbacks worked only to slow the pace).  There’s also a predictability to the story and the key revelations that affected some of my enjoyment but that said, this is a solid start to what promises to be an interesting series and my criticisms aside, I would definitely read on.

Thanks to the Amazon Vine Programme for the review copy of this book.

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