The Adventure of the Norwood Builder

The Adventure of the Norwood Builder

The Adventure of the Norwood Builder, one of the 56 short Sherlock Holmes stories written by British author Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, is the second tale from "The Return of Sherlock Holmes". The story was first published in "Strand Magazine" in 1903 with original illustrations by Sidney Paget.


Sherlock Holmes and Dr. Watson are visited by "the unhappy John Hector McFarlane", a young lawyer who has been accused of murdering one of his clients, a builder called Jonas Oldacre. McFarlane explains to Holmes that Oldacre had come to his office only the day before and asked him to draw up his will in legal language. McFarlane saw to his surprise that Oldacre was making him the sole beneficiary, and heir to a considerable bequest at that. McFarlane could not imagine why.

This business took McFarlane to Oldacre's house in Norwood where some documents had to be examined for legal purposes. These were kept in the safe where the murder allegedly took place. McFarlane left quite late and stayed at a local inn. He read about the murder in the newspaper the next morning on the train. The paper said quite clearly that the police were looking for him.

The evidence against young Mr. McFarlane is quite damning. His stick has been found in Mr. Oldacre's room, and a fire was extinguished just outside in which a pile of dry timber burnt to ashes, complete with the smell of burnt flesh. It seems more than likely that McFarlane did the crime, especially as it is known that he was there at about that time. For once, a case proves to be not at all elementary to Sherlock Holmes.

Inspector Lestrade does quite a bit of gloating in this story, for it seems that he is on the right track and Holmes is not. Even when Sherlock Holmes begins his own investigation into the matter, he must admit that he can see no other explanation for what has happened to Mr. Oldacre than the official one propounded by Lestrade.

McFarlane's mother, Holmes finds out, was once engaged to Oldacre years earlier, but then later wanted nothing to do with the man once she found out how cruel he was-he had let a cat loose in a bird santuary.

Upon examining the handwritten notes given McFarlane by Oldacre to be rendered into legally acceptable language, Holmes reckons they were written in a very haphazard fashion, as if the writer didn't really care what he was writing. The alternation between legible handwriting and incomprehensible squiggles suggests to Holmes that the "will" was written hurriedly on a train, with the legible writing representing stops at stations. All Holmes can offer as an alternative are general theories, while Lestrade parries with the knowledge that none of the papers were taken, and that only McFarlane, if Oldacre were murdered, would not have any reason to take the papers.

It also emerges that Oldacre's financial dealings have been a bit odd. Several cheques for substantial amounts, and for unknown reasons, have recently been made out to a Mr. Cornelius.

The discovery by Holmes of Mr. Oldacre's trouser buttons in the fire ashes does nothing to help exonerate McFarlane, but Holmes is convinced that Mr. Oldacre's housekeeper is withholding information. Holmes's powers of observation tell him that the housekeeper's expression suggests this. He is sure that she holds the key to the mystery, and he is right, but he will not need her to solve the case.

Lestrade's gloating reaches a crescendo when a bloody thumbprint is found at Oldacre's house. He is sure it is enough to put McFarlane's neck in the noose. It matches the accused's thumb exactly. However, it makes Holmes quite sure that something very devious is afoot: Holmes examined that part of the house only a day earlier, and is quite sure that the thumbprint was not there then, and McFarlane has been in gaol since his arrest at Holmes's Baker Street rooms. So, someone is attempting a deception.Once again, Holmes astonishes Lestrade with his unorthodox methods, which in this case involve setting a fire in one room of the house with a little straw (with a man told to stand by with a bucket of water to immediately douse it on command) and having three of his constables shout "fire". Lestrade, and Watson too, are also quite astonished at what happens next: the very much still living Mr. Oldacre emerges from a hidden chamber at the end of a hallway — where Holmes has deduced it must be — and runs to escape the fire. He is seized, protesting.

The "dénouement" reveals that it was a revenge campaign against the woman who rejected him years ago, young Mr. McFarlane's mother. Pathetically, Oldacre tries to pass off his actions as a practical joke, but he is taken into custody.

As for Mr. Cornelius, the recipient of so much of Oldacre's munificence, Holmes deduces that it is likely an alias used by Oldacre, and that he has been leading a double life with the eventual goal of shedding his Oldacre identity so that he can start a new life. "Mr. Cornelius" bank account will be seized by Oldacre's crediters. Oldacre swears revenge against Holmes, who serenely dismisses the villain's threats.


Arthur Conan Doyle lived in Norwood, and included some local details into the story. For example, McFarlane spends the night in "The Anerley Arms", a pub which still exists today.

This is likely one of the first cases that Holmes takes on after re-establishing his detective agency, as the story opens with him and Watson discussing how dull London has become since the death of Professor Moriarty, before a panicking McFarlane bursts in on them.

At the start of the story, Watson mentions two unrecorded cases that Holmes investigated around the same time as this story:
* "The case of the papers of Ex-President Murillo", which Conan Doyle later wrote as "The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge".
* "The shocking affair of the Dutch steamship Friesland", which loosely inspired the 1945 film "Pursuit to Algiers" starring Basil Rathbone as Holmes.
*The Granada TV version with Jeremy Brett was rather faithful to the original story-except while the original story had Oldacre burning a dead rabbit with his clothes; in the TV adoption a tramp was killed by Oldacre and burned to frame McFarlane. Some of the other deviations: the TV show has Watson tracing the payments made to Cornelius while in the book it was Holmes who gleans this fact. Also, when Lestrade comes to Holmes' rooms to arrest McFarlane the TV version has Holmes warning the young man that whatever he says may be used in evidence against him. In the book it is Lestrade who, as the arresting officer, provides the mandatory warning.

An important element within the plot of this story was devised by Bertram Fletcher Robinson (1870-1907). Prior to the publication of this story in 1903, Fletcher Robinson had acted as 'Assistant Plot Producer' to 'The Hound of the Baskervilles' (1901). [cite article |title = The Hound of The Baskervilles (Part I) |url =]


External links

*, 21 years before the setting of this story. Conan Doyle's house is roughly on the H of the big "SOUTH NORWOOD WARD".

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