Spook-y beginnings

When I was eight we went on a family holiday to Italy, and as a treat beforehand my parents let me and my brother choose a few books in the old Blackwells paperback bookshop on Broad Street in Oxford. I can’t remember what I got, but I do remember that among my parents’ booty was a clutch of Gavin Lyall thrillers. Lyall was a former RAF pilot and air correspondent who started off writing novels with a strong aeronautical element, then turned to government-ish skulduggery in the 1980s with his 10 Downing St fixer Major Maxim, before creating the Ranklin series about the early days of MI6. And he comes to mind because I’ve just finished ‘The Irregular’ by HB Lyle, the first of (so far) two thrillers about the early days of MI5 – same pre-WW1 setting, but the sister service.  

Lyall wrote at a time when much less was publicly known than is now about the early days of MI6 and MI5. The three best sources for this period had yet to be published – namely, the two official histories, whose authors (Keith Jeffrey for SIS, Christopher Andrew for the Security Service) had a more or less clear run at classified material, and Alan Judd’s biography of the founding head of MI6, Sir Mansfield Cumming.  Even so, Lyall’s portrayal seems pretty close to the raffish and hand-to-mouth reality of those early days, at least as Judd and Jeffrey describe it. But then he had superb contacts and a knack for creating a truthful secret world – his Harry Maxim thrillers feel right, and one even involves as a plot device a real Cold War plan that didn’t emerge into the public domain until after his death.   

HB Lyle is writing a different kind of novel – a historical thriller that happens to be about spies. His focus is the rich political and social landscape of pre-WW1 London – suffragettes, the politics of spy scares, anarchists, a poor city in a country with no safety net for the poor – and as anyone who knows the setting could tell you, he uses only a small proportion of what he could work with. Clearly there is a lot more good stuff to come in his series.  

Particularly given his big, clever conceit. Whereas Lyall’s SIS thrillers are perhaps too solidly rooted in fact, and seem a little leaden as a result, HB Lyle’s inspired move was to conscript Sherlock Holmes and his urchin network The Baker Street Irregulars into MI5’s creation myth. Some of ‘The Irregular’ could have done with Lyall’s expertise – for instance, he got officialdom and the military world down to a T. Yet as fiction Lyall’s thrillers miss something that ‘The Irregular’ has in spades – the brio that comes from blending fact, fiction, and our understanding of the boundaries between the two. Holmes and the Irregulars aren’t fundamental to HB Lyle’s plot, but they lift the whole thriller to a different level. And make it even more fun.