Occasionally to Embellish by Nicholas Utechin

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Review by Chris Redmond

This volume published by Gasogene Books is subtitled “Some Writings on Sherlock Holmes” — 23 articles by British Sherlockian and long-time editor Nicholas Utechin, originally published in various journals and collections between 1969 and 2009.

It by no means represents all of his life work, which includes many other articles as well as book titles, fugitive pieces and the great mass of material one might expect from a thirty-year editor of the Sherlock Holmes Journal. And, indeed, editorship and administrative work for the Sherlock Holmes Society of London is the heart of Utechin's enormous contribution to the Sherlockian world. He can, however, think and write, often in a distinctively quirky way that builds large, but apparently solid, edifices on very small foundations, a few words in a single Sherlock Holmes story or indeed something that the story does not say when it might be expected.

“Blurring fact and fiction,” to use his own phrase, is Utechin's specialty, and some readers may have more patience with it than others. In his essay “The Colonel of the Matter,” an attempt to flesh out the unsavoury life of Colonel Sebastian Moran, he juxtaposes Sherlock Holmes's biographical index and the Dictionary of National Biography, throws in the Eton College Lists, postulates a couple of surname changes (to preclude gossip), and ends up with a narrative likely to produce rapid blinking and head-shaking. “You find some vaguely plausible names and workable dates in real publications,” Utechin explains in a postscript, “and then twist, force and fiddle the whole into something just about presentable.”

The piece of writing for which Utechin is best known, his frequently reprinted Sherlock Holmes in Oxford, is represented here only in part in a preliminary version. It too depends considerably on coincidences in names, conflating Sherlock Holmes with one Edmond Gore Alexander Holmes of St. John's College, Oxford, but along the way it does shed considerable light on what Holmes's college career must have been like — not nearly as similar to a North American university career of the present century as many Sherlockians seem to think.

Also in the course of this slim volume, Utechin addresses the utter improbability of most of what happens in “The Three Students”; classifies the opening sentences of the 60 Holmes tales; tries to explain what Holmes saw in the poetry of Petrarch; sheds some light on the career of James Moriarty; and takes Holmes to task for a snobbish class-consciousness as evidenced in more than one story. In general these are not large or deep Sherlockian studies, but they are individually entertaining, and it is good to have them resurrected from what were in some cases rather obscure first publications.