The Irregular, by H. B. Lyle. Reviewed by Gregory G.H. Rihn
H.B, Lyle picks up one of the few neglected threads of the Sherlock Holmes canon—whatever happened to the Baker Street Irregulars, the loosely organized band of urchins that were Holmes’ eyes and ears in the London streets.
In The Irregular, the year is 1909. Wiggins (the only named Irregular), having grown out of being an unobvious street rat, joined the British Army (a word from Watson getting him into the Doctor’s old regiment). He’s seen the horrors of war in the campaign against the Boers, mustered out, and taken up a marginal job as a “bailiff”, or debt collector. He’s not very good at it, having too much sympathy for the downtrodden poor.
In the greater world of 1909, a secret war of espionage among the powers of Europe is heating up. It is a war that Britain is singularly unprepared for. On the one hand, there is the British prejudice that spying is not an occupation for gentlemen. On the other hand, is the hidebound tradition that ONLY gentlemen can be accepted for government jobs. Enter Captain Vernon Kell*, R.A. (ret.), himself a gentleman, but who had had corners knocked off him by his own Boer War service. He has come to the conclusion that the Oxbridge alumni sent him are unsuitable for the task of counter-espionage, and, moreover, are getting killed at an alarming rate. So, he decides to consult Sherlock Holmes.
Holmes, or, the “Grand Old Man” as the Irregulars supposedly called him, tells Kell “Wiggins is the best,” but when Kell tries to recruit him, Wiggins refuses to work for the government.
Wiggins’ attitude changes when his good friend and former messmate, Police Constable Bill Tyler, is killed by presumed anarchists during a payroll robbery. Wiggins accepts Kell’s offer, reasoning that the new job will give him the freedom to track down Tyler’s killers.
The story is fast-paced, violent, and entertaining, with occasional touches of humor, such as Wiggins overhearing a conversation between E. W. Hornung’s Raffles and Bunny, or Kell being asked if he is a member of the Drones’ Club.
Of interest to Steampunks for the Sherlock Holmes connection, and period international intrigue.
*Kell, later Major-General Sir Vernon Kell, KCMG KBE CB, was a real person, and founder and first Director of the British Security Service, otherwise known as MI5.