The Irregular: A Different Class of Spy
In an entertaining blend of history and fiction, H. B. Lyle draws on the Sherlock Holmes stories for inspiration, and factual history in a novel of the establishment of the British Secret Service.
It’s 1909, and Captain Vernon Kell, real-life head of counterintelligence for the War Office, believes Britain desperately needs a separate, secret, and most importantly, adequately funded network of spies. His stumbling block is definitive proof that there are spies in the pay of Britain’s adversaries, mainly Germany, who are sending vital military and industrial secrets to the Kaiser’s War Office.
Kell’s boss, Major General Spencer Ewart, is convinced that Germany is a legitimate threat, but Ewart’s opinion is ignored by the government. “The high-ups in the Liberal Party were willfully blind to the potential dangers of espionage, apart from the insufferable prig, Churchill, but he didn’t have the clout to raise the budget of Kell’s meager counterintelligence unit.”
In other words, Britain’s leaders are fat, happy, and blind. Besides, there is a feeling among those in charge that there is something beyond the pale in gentlemen spying on gentlemen. It’s not quite cricket.
While the government claims (in their opinion) the moral high ground, Kell has just lost contact with his last agent named Leyton, who is working undercover at a London munitions plant where someone has passed along information about the manufacture of a new type of shell to the Krupp munitions operation in Germany.
If Leyton has succeeded in obtaining documents, receipts, letters, anything that proved a link between theft of secrets from the London munitions plant and the reappearance of those same secrets at Krupp’s, then Kell will have the proof he needs.
But Leyton has disappeared, most likely murdered. Kell is desperate, so he contacts an old friend, an elderly beekeeper named Sherlock Holmes. Holmes recommends the former leader of the Baker Street Irregulars, now ex-military, named Wiggins.
Kell approaches Wiggins, who turns him down. “Ain’t my style. I don’t do official.”
Even Wiggins can change his mind, but patriotism is not the reason. An old Army buddy, now a London bobby is murdered trying to arrest two Russian anarchists after they robbed a payroll.
A surreptitious search by Wiggins of the crime scene where the two Russians ultimately die turns up evidence that there was a third anarchist, logically the person who planned the payroll robbery, and thus responsible for Bill’s death. Wiggins intends to hunt him down.
Wiggins realizes, and his old mentor, Sherlock Holmes, agrees, that accepting Kell’s offer and becoming an agent of his, will provide the cover and the study income necessary to find the Russian anarchist.
Wiggins investigates the anarchist movement, but the Russian immigrant community does not welcome outsiders. In many cases the Russians don’t even trust each other. A visit to a Russian pub leads to Wiggins finding himself in danger of being murdered. If not for the intercession of a young Russian woman with a terrible birthmark on her face, Wiggins would not have escaped.
Wiggins’s rescue is in the nature of quid pro que, as the former Irregular had saved her from a groups of thugs just a short time before. The two become lovers and Bela attends political rallies with him. He meets Peter the Painter and his vicious fellow anarchist named Yakov. But there is another anarchist who apparently is in charge: Arlekin. It is Arlekin that Wiggins wants.
Wiggins mixes his duties as watchman and undercover agent at the munitions plant with his search for Arlekin. He discovers the spy who is selling secrets to the Germans, but only in time to witness his murder. A glimpse of the murderer gives Wiggins the first hint that there might be a conspiracy that involves both anarchists and spies selling British secrets.
Lyle is adept at characterization. The flashbacks that flesh out Wiggins’ life on the street and his meeting with Sherlock Holmes; the background of Bela’s life in Latvia; and Kell’s struggles adapting to wife Constance’s support of the National Union of Women’s Suffrage Societies, are very skillfully written.
While is Wiggins is the protagonist of the novel, Constance Kell almost steals the story. She and her husband provide the humor and much of the domestic social commentary.
Kell is certain that an airplane will never fly across the English Channel, and that a horse-drawn cab is much preferable to automobiles. He follows a gentleman he is investigating into a gay bathhouse, but has no idea what it is. Constance, who knows the gentleman’s wife, has to inform her husband about the bathhouse.
While Kell is uncertain about the advisability of giving women the vote, not to mention to the lower classes, he is willing to admit that his wife makes an admirable agent. But it so dangerous for a woman; women need protection. If there is a woman in 1909 London any better at protecting herself it is Constance.
Kell’s lack of imagination regarding the future of modern technology and his old-fashioned views of women are a bit overdone, but his views add to his charm and the humor of his interactions with Wiggins and Constance.
The humor in the novel is offset by the violence committed again the vulnerable. The scenes inside the orphanage during Wiggins’ childhood are sickening.
Lyle’s descriptions of 1909 London are vivid; one can almost smell the coal smoke and the raw sewage. All in all, The Irregular is a compelling book, one to add to one’s reading list.