The Adventure of the Norwood Builder

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"The Adventure of the Norwood Builder"
McFarlane visiting Holmes and Watson, 1903 illustration by Sidney Paget
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 The 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 from Blackheath 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, and he cannot imagine why Oldacre would do so. This business took McFarlane to Oldacre's house in Lower 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 claims to have 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.

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. Holmes begins his own investigation into the matter by going to Blackheath, which puzzles Lestrade, who had expected him to go first to Norwood. 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 sanctuary. Nonetheless, he tells Lestrade that he can see no other explanation for what has happened to Mr. Oldacre than the official one propounded by Lestrade.

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 about 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. It also emerges that Oldacre's financial dealings had 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.

Oldacre appearing

Lestrade's gloating reaches a peak when a bloody thumbprint is found at Oldacre's house. 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. Because McFarlane has been in gaol since his arrest at Holmes's Baker Street rooms, he deduces that someone is attempting a deception.

Holmes sets up a small fire in one room of the house with a little straw, and tells three of his constables to shout "Fire!". Lestrade and Watson are 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 immediately seized.

The dénouement reveals that it was a revenge campaign against the woman who rejected him years ago, young Mr. McFarlane's mother. Oldacre tries to pass off his actions as a practical joke, but he is taken into custody. Holmes lightly chuffs his rival for neglecting Blackheath, where he acquired the key information.

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"'s bank account will be seized by Oldacre's creditors. Oldacre swears revenge against Holmes, who serenely dismisses the threats.


Arthur Conan Doyle lived in South Norwood from 1891 to 1894, but the Norwood where Oldacre lives is Lower Norwood (also known as West Norwood). The only connection between this story and South Norwood is that South Norwood's railway station Norwood Junction is used by the Oldacre. 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]

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.
  • A reference to Professor Moriarty prefaces the story, 'From the point of view of the criminal expert,' said Mr Sherlock Holmes, 'London has become a singularly uninteresting city since the death of the late lamented Moriarty.' Moriarty is mentioned in two other 1903 stories 'The Adventure of the Missing Three-Quarter' and 'The Adventure of the Empty House'.

Adaptations and 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.

"The Norwood Builder" was dramatised for BBC Radio 4 in 1993 by Bert Coules as part of his complete radio adaptation of the canon, starring Clive Merrison as Holmes and Michael Williams as Watson, and featuring Peter Sallis as Jonas Oldacre, Donald Gee as Inspector Lestrade, and David Holt as John McFarlane.[4] In it, 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.

The Wishbone Mysteries novel Forgotten Heroes references the Adventure of the Norwood Builder.

The 2017 Twitter accounts of Sherlock Holmes[5] and John H. Watson.[6] The story was adapted to a twenty-first century equivalent, but most of the details remained unchanged.


  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. 
  4. ^ Bert Coules. "The Return of Sherlock Holmes". The BBC complete audio Sherlock Holmes. Retrieved 12 December 2016. 
  5. ^
  6. ^

External links[edit]