A Family Member Appears in a Rollicking Thriller

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How cool is it to read a thriller whose hero is a family member? Or at least the relative of a family member?

I recently dove into the fictional world of a member of my extended family when I read The Irregular: A Different Class of Spy by H.B. Lyle.  It’s a wonderful yarn for lovers of Sherlock Holmes, or London, or escapist spy novels.

The Irregular actually has two heroes, one fictional and the other a historical figure. Wiggins was the head of the Baker Street Irregulars, the gang of urchins who helped Sherlock Holmes in Arthur Conan Doyle’s fictional series set in Victorian London. (Doyle didn’t give him a first name, and if Lyle has I can’t find it.)

Lyle has cleverly paired him up with Major-General Vernon Kell, the genuine historical figure credited with creating MI5, Britain’s domestic spy agency. I first heard of him as a boy because my grandmother married his son James. I’m most familiar with his career from reading that one of the first things Winston Churchill did on becoming Prime Minister in 1940 was to fire Kell and other senior intelligence operatives.

My grandmother was born Alison Rennie in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and married and later divorced Cameos Moreira of Porto, Portugal. After her three children had grown, she married for a second time to Jimmie Kell of London, son of Sir Vernon.

I never met Jimmie, but as a boy I understood he was a real gent and that his father was someone famous. I remember my grandmother joking about that damn Churchill – if it hadn’t been for him, she said with a devilish grin, Vernon might have got a hereditary title and then she’d be Lady Kell.

In Lyle’s capable hands, my step-great-grandfather (Is that a thing?) has been transformed into a thriller hero. (Actually, according to Wikipedia, he’s appeared in a small library of thrillers over the years.)

The Irregular is set in 1909 and Britain is on edge due to growing tension with Germany and rising Bolshevism in Russia. Kell heads counter-intelligence at the War Office and wants to set up a Secret Service. He needs an agent who can prowl the streets of London and come up with meaningful intelligence. His masters at Whitehall want one of their own, a product of a good public school.

But Kell quietly brings on board Wiggins, who learned his craft from the great Sherlock Holmes. He’s now an adult, sort of an Edwardian private eye. And working together they investigate a few murders centred around a group of Bolshevik sympathizers.

The Irregular is a rollicking yarn, largely because Lyle writes action so well. He also brings Edwardian London to life – both the time and the place. He even features one of my favourite pubs in the city – the Cheshire Cheese off Fleet Street. 

Peter Moreira