The Adventure of the Norwood Builder

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"The Adventure of the Norwood Builder"
Author Arthur Conan Doyle
Series The Return of Sherlock Holmes
Publication date 1903

"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.


McFarlane visiting Holmes and Watson.
Oldacre appearing in The Adventure of the Norwood Builder

The Norwood Builder is Jonas Oldacre, 52, reclusive retired bachelor, who vanished the night before (July+ 1894) from his house, not found when the lumber in his yard caught fire in a tremendous conflagration. His bed was unused, his safe open, papers scattered, signs of struggle, a large object dragged from safe to woodpile then burned, and blood on an oak cane belonging to late-night visitor, junior lawyer John McFarlane. The suspect bursts into Baker Street distraught, showing Holmes the news article that diverted him from his homeward train, and begs Holmes to help him.

As McFarlane relates his story, Lestrade, accompanied by constables, suddenly arrests his man, but agrees to listen to his story for half an hour. Yesterday at 3 pm, ferret-faced Oldacre, his name known as an acquaintance of the youth's parents, bade McFarlane turn scribbles into a legal will, with McFarlane learning to his surprise that Oldacre has made him his sole heir as Oldacre lacks any other family and has heard good things about him due to his past connection to McFarlane's parents. After witnessing and signing, the benefactor asked him for dinner at nine, to see essential paperwork details, and not tell his parents. Around midnight they finished sorting paper into sealed envelopes, and, admonished not to disturb the housekeeper, he was ushered, without his cane, out of the French window, safe still ajar. After the constables leave with their prisoner, Holmes explains the will's rough draft varies from clear to unreadable where the writer's train stopped at stations, then rumbled roughly.

Holmes investigates. At Blackheath, fluffy little mother McFarlane reveals Oldacre to be a vicious vengeful ex-suitor, rejected after he loosed a cat in an aviary. At Norwood trouser buttons from Oldacre's tailor are found among charred organic remains, examination of the remaining documents reveals allusions to missing valuable deeds, and a low bank balance attributable to recent large cheques to Mr. Cornelius. Defiant, guilty-eyed housekeeper Mrs. Lexington smelled burnt flesh the night before, and knows more than she says, that the visitor's hat and cane were both left in the front hall.

Next morning, Lestrade telegrams Holmes to come see McFarlane's bloody right thumbprint below the hat-peg, pointed out by Lexington. Holmes knows the evidence was not there yesterday, and minutely examines the whole house. He asks Lestrade for loud-voiced constables, and all cry "fire" after large straw bundles are lit, to smoke out their missing witness, Oldacre, from behind solid-seeming walls. Holmes gives Lestrade the victory, wagers one of the thumbprints sealing the safe papers is McFarlane's, that Oldacre filled with blood and transferred. Mr. Cornelius is probably an alter identity Oldacre had intended to take on permanently, the bitter man seeking revenge on his former lover by creating the illusion that he was murdered by her only child. Holmes notes with amusement that the thumb-print was actually the give-away clue; prior to the print's discovery, even Holmes suspected that McFarlane might be guilty, but Oldacre's inability to know when to stop creating his illusion caused him to expose himself. Under guard in the parlor, the villain whines that he intended it all to be a joke, and refuses to admit what flesh burned in the fire, so Holmes suggests Watson ascribe rabbits. Oldacre will be charged with conspiracy to commit murder and "Mr Cornelius" bank account will be confiscated by Oldacre's creditors.


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 exists as of 2011, but has a derelict upper floor (no more overnight guests) and changing management.[1][2]

It is one of the few Holmes stories in which a fingerprint provides a good clue to the nature of the problem. The wax thumb-print reproduction idea was devised by, and bought from, Bertram Fletcher Robinson (1870–1907), who also helped plot The Hound of the Baskervilles (1901).[3] Although Holmes and Watson both examine the fingerprint and find it matches one taken from the suspect, it could not have matched because it was placed there by using a wax impression of the suspect's print that was smeared with blood, and thus the print would have been a mirror image of the sample print taken from the suspect.

At the start of the story, Watson mentions two unrecorded cases that Holmes investigated around the same time as this story:

Adaptation Differences[edit]

The Granada TV version with Jeremy Brett was faithful to the original story with exceptions. On TV, Oldacre kills and burns a tramp, versus in Doyle, he refuses to admit what flesh burned. Mrs. McFarlane is a recent widow, versus Mr. McFarlane is alive but away. Watson traces payments to Cornelius, versus Holmes gleans this fact. Holmes warns McFarlane his words may be used against him versus Lestrade.

In the BBC radio adaptation starring Clive Merrison as Holmes and Michael Williams as Watson, because of his change of attitude towards fame (acquired while traveling in Tibet during his "death"), Holmes at the beginning informs Watson that "there must be no more stories", but that Watson should continue to keep notes on their cases so as to stockpile them for possible future publication. Also, after his capture Oldacre reveals that he also believed Holmes to be dead.


  1. ^ "The Anerley Arms Hotel". Geograph Britain and Ireland. Retrieved 23 August 2014. 
  2. ^ "The Anerley Arms". Sam Smiths. Retrieved 23 August 2014. 
  3. ^ Spiring, Paul (2007). "The Hound of the Baskervilles (Part I)". Bertram Fletcher Robinson Online. Retrieved 23 August 2014. 

External links[edit]

Works related to The Adventure of the Norwood Builder at Wikisource