Publisher: Hodder & Stoughton
Publication Date – 23 August 2018
Return to pre-World War I London for another compelling spy adventure in H. B. Lyle’s second book, The Red Ribbon, which is set in the same universe as Sherlock Holmes and features three exciting characters with an intriguing look at early 20th century British history and espionage.
In London, in 1910, Captain Vernon Kell is still attempting create a secret intelligence service capable of protecting England from foreign spies and infiltrators. Despite the early success of the Secret Service Bureau, Kell’s organisation is constantly under pressure from the country’s politicians and is in danger of being absorbed into Special Branch of London’s police.
Unfortunately, Kell’s only agent, Wiggins, is distracted with his own cases and unwilling to play the political games needed to help the service survive. Wiggins is the former leader of Sherlock Holmes’s street urchin surveillance organisation, the Baker Street Irregulars, and has picked up a few of his old master’s deductive tricks while retaining his lower-class charm and street smarts. Wiggins is obsessed with finding the infamous anarchist, Peter the Painter, the man responsible for the death of one of Wiggins’s oldest friends, and is scouring the streets for him.
Looking for a missing girl on behalf of one of his contacts, Wiggins begins to investigate a mysterious embassy located in the affluent neighbourhood of Belgravia. The embassy is actually a high-class brothel frequented by the rich and powerful of London. When another girl associated with the embassy is found murdered, Wiggins attempts to find justice; however, the embassy is under the protection of someone Wiggins knows well: Tommy, a fellow former member of the Irregulars.
However, Wiggins’s personal investigations intersect with his work for Kell, as the two of them hunt for the source of a series of leaks at the highest level of government. With the help of Kell’s wife, the suffragist Constance, Wiggins and Kell must find the connection between the events occurring around London in order to keep the country safe from sinister foreign influences.
The Red Ribbon is the follow-up to Lyle’s debut novel, The Irregular: A Different Class of Spy, and is the second book in the Irregular Spy Thriller series. This is a great series that will appeal to a huge range of readers, as Lyle combines compelling historical fiction elements with a thrilling espionage story that has fictional links with one of the most iconic book series of all time, Sherlock Holmes.
The story within The Red Ribbon is split between the book’s three main protagonists and takes a look at each character’s different and exciting adventures. Wiggins and Kell continue their missions from the first book, and while their investigations are ostensibly separate from each other, they eventually intersect in several clever ways. The relationship between Wiggins and Kell is an important part of these two storylines, as Kell despairs of Wiggins’s personal investigations and wants Wiggins to solely work missions for the service. The third focal character is Kell’s wife, Constance, who was a supporting character in the first book. Constance becomes a much more significant character in The Red Ribbon, as the book focuses on her involvement with the suffragist and suffragette movements. Both Wiggins and Kell become involved with Constance’s storyline in different capacities, while Constance provides significant assistance with her husband’s espionage work. With three semi-connected stories, it does at times feel like there is too much going on for one cohesive narrative. However, each of the stories comes together quite well in the end and provides the reader with an extremely captivating overarching narrative.
Having three separate storylines allows Lyle to highlight the differences in social classes during this historical period and highlights how different groups of people were treated. Kell, as the influential gentleman, is forced to constantly deal with the upper-class politics and attitudes during his attempts to keep the service going. Wiggins, who was raised on the street, deals more with the average Londoner and experiences the poverty and desperation many of them encounter. He must also deal with the distain of the upper classes in the course of his espionage work. While he is clearly the most competent agent in the entire British service, he is constantly looked down upon and ignored by his government superiors. There are also several instances where Wiggins is assigned to infiltrate labour movements, something he is very reluctant to do due to his world views and background. This divide often serves to create some significant tension with Kell, who, despite fully understanding Wiggins’s value, skills and point of view, is often exasperated by him. The beefed-up storyline around Constance allows the reader a significant look at the suffragist movement and the early battles these women fought for equality. In The Red Ribbon, Constance joins the much more militant suffragettes, and is constantly infuriated by the reactions of the male politicians and their oppressive policies. The oppression of women also becomes a major point of conflict between Kell and Constance which results in a decline in their relationship, although the final payoff of this storyline is quite sweet. I really enjoyed the way that Constance and Wiggins developed a fun comradery in this book, as their poor treatment by the upper-class men allow them to bond, with Wiggins even teaching Constance some anti-surveillance techniques.
Lyle cleverly incorporates several important historical events into this book, such as the funeral of Edward VII, the Black Friday suffragettes and suffragists protest outside Parliament and the Siege of Sidney Street. These events are quite significant in their own right, and Lyle spends substantial time filling in their background and ensuring the reader is aware of why they are happening and why they are important. However, they also serve as very compelling background events for the plot of The Red Ribbon and work well to enhance this already fascinating story. In addition to these intriguing and important historical events, Lyle has also packed a number of historical figures into this story. Quite a few prominent politicians and British civil servants have significant roles in the plot, including a young Winston Churchill, which makes the story feel a lot more authentic. The author’s continued use of the enigmatic Peter the Painter as one of the book’s principal antagonists is another brilliant stroke, and the reader is provided with some intriguing theories about who he actually was and what his eventual fate was. Lyle does slightly go overboard by adding in some other famous historical figures in small cameo roles, and the shoehorning in of people such as Charlie Chaplin and members of the 1910 British Antarctic Expedition seems a bit unnecessary. That being said, it was amusing to watch Chaplin use his drunken tramp routine to help Wiggins escape a conflict in a theatre.
One of my favourite components of this book was the author’s detailed and unique look at British espionage and counter espionage in the early 20th century. One of the book’s protagonists, Captain Kell, is an actual historical figure who is credited for creating Britain’s domestic spy service, which morphed into the modern MI5. This fictionalised account of the early days of this organisation are quite fascinating, especially when the author looks at some of its early challenges, the political battles Kell might have had to face, and the sort of work this organisation was originally looking at. In addition to the domestic espionage work, the protagonists of The Red Ribbon find themselves drawn into one of the most infamous espionage incidents of the era: the capture of British agents Captain Trench and Lieutenant Brandon in Germany in 1910. This is a highly fictionalised account of the incident, as Lyle has inserted Kell and Mansfield Cummings, one of the founders of MI6, as being there. It plays marvellously in Kell’s overall storyline, while also featuring some great scenes as the three protagonists’ attempt to evade arrest by the Germans. Trench and Brandon are not portrayed in the best light, as Lyle has used them to further the class prejudices in Britain, portraying the two soldiers as quite incompetent spies who are captured as a result of wilfully ignoring Wiggins’s advice due to him not being a gentleman.
Another fun part of The Red Ribbon is the connection the book shares with the Sherlock Holmes novels. The Irregular Spy Thriller series is set in the same universe as the Sherlock Holmes books. Wiggins was mentioned several times in Arthur Conan Doyle’s original works as the leader of the Baker Street Irregulars. As a result, Wiggins comes across as a rougher Sherlock Holmes, who uses the classic deductive method while also fighting, drinking and speaking in a lower-class manner. As in the first book of this series, the great detective himself makes a brief appearance, providing Wiggins with a case-breaking suggestion, while casually enjoying his retirement. The use of the Sherlock Holmes elements is definitely a defining element of the book, and while it is mostly used to draw interested readers into this historical spy thriller, Lyle successfully uses it to create a unique and enjoyable main protagonist.
B. Lyle has followed up his superb 2017 debut with another fun and exhilarating read. Continuing to use his Sherlock Holmes inspired character to great effect, Lyle weaves a full and captivating narrative that presents several unique stories chock full of adventure, mystery and interesting historical content. The Red Ribbon is an amazing second outing from Lyle which also sets up an exciting concept for a third book in the series.