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Bookends: A Protégé of Sherlock Strikes Out on his Own December 31, 2018

Posted by klondykewriter in Bookends, Klondike Sun, mystery, Whitehorse Star.
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Bookends: A Protégé of Sherlock Strikes Out on his Own

By Dan Davidson

May 9, 2018

–  886 words –

The Irregular

The Irregular: A Different Class of Spy

By H.B Lyle

Kindle Edition


Print Length: 301 pages

Hodder & Stoughton


Sherlock Homes remains one of the most durable literary creation of the 19th century, his continuing popularity evidenced by what seems to be the annual appearance of yet another collection of pastiche short stories by dozens of different authors and a list of novels and collections that ran to several pages the last time I tried to pin it down.

Then, of course, there is the BBC series of TV mini-movies featuring Benedict Cumberbatch and Martin Freeman, and set in our time. How odd that in both the original and the upgrade it is still possible for Doctor Watson to have received his war wound in Afghanistan.

Then there are the fairly bohemian period piece films featuring Robert Downie Junior, of which there is to be a third; and the television show Elementary (now in its sixth season) which has brought a fellow named Holmes into the 21st century and moved him to New York.

Continuing the character is one way to work with the formula. Pitting Holmes against the Invisible Man, Mr., Hyde, Dracula, the Martian Invasion and other tricks have been tried. He was even teamed up with Tarzan in one pastiche novel.

Another way is to take secondary characters from the Holmes canon and work with them. The late John Gardener wrote several novels from the point of view of Professor Moriarity, Holmes’ great enemy.

H.B. Lyle has begun a series using yet another secondary character, one who was first introduced to us in the very first novel, when there is a thundering of many footsteps on the stairs leading up to the apartment at 221-B Baker Street. Watson announces his bewilderment.

“’What on earth is this?’ I cried, for at this moment there came the pattering of many steps in the hall and on the stairs, accompanied by audible expressions of disgust upon the part of our landlady.

“’It’s the Baker Street division of the detective police force,’ said my companion gravely; and as he spoke there rushed into the room half a dozen of the dirtiest and most ragged street Arabs that ever I clapped eyes on.” From A Study in Scarletby Arthur Conan Doyle.

Their leader is the oldest one of them, a young teenager named Wiggins. Both he and others, most of whom are nameless, appear in several other stories and novels, and the device has been considered worthy of inclusion in some version in each of the current media incarnations of Holmes. They are called the Baker Street Irregulars, or just the Irregulars.

And now you know why Lyle’s novel has that title.

It’s 1909 and Wiggins is in his 30s, having grown up and spent a long stint in the army, a very basic career choice for lower class young men as the 19th century drew to a close. Britain pretty much dominates the world at this point, but there are revolutionary winds blowing in Russia; there’s an arms race with Germany; and the world is beginning to lurch towards that conflict which will initially be called The Great War.

Lower class Wiggins hasn’t been able to do well for himself since being demobbed. He’s been reduced to being a collection agent for a loan shark, which pretty much means strong-arming  and shaking down people who haven’t made their payments, people with who he would naturally be in sympathy.

He is approached by a friend of Holmes named Vernon Kell, who wants to set up a secret service to help protect the Empire. He needs men (mostly) who are smart, capable of fighting, and who can blend in with the lower classes. Holmes, who appears only briefly in this book, has recommended Wiggins as a prime candidate.

Kell is anxious to prove to his arrogant political masters that such a force is actually needed. They can’t begin to see why there could possibly be any threat to the Empire. He needs capable people who can establish that such threats exist.

Wiggins turns down the job at first, saying he “don’t do official”, but when a policeman friend of his is murdered by Russian anarchists, leaving that man’s family destitute, Wiggins signs up as a way to work on finding his friend’s killers. While his official assignment has him working undercover at a munitions factory that seems to be leaking information to the Germans, he is able to use his position to build up a string of informants and allies that help him to solve more than just his official case.

He’s an irregular sort of agent who creates his own group of irregulars, following in the footsteps, and using the methods of, his mentor, the Great Detective. Not that he doesn’t have all sorts of problems with his upper class superiors, but he does get the job done.

Interviews with Lyle indicate that he used quite a few real people (Kell being one) in the book and did a lot of research to get the period right. There’s a second book under way and the first has been optioned to be produced as a mini-series.