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Sherlock Holmes - The Adventure of the Norwood Builder
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Note: this article contains plot details and spoilers.

The Adventure of the Norwood Builder

"I am sure that they are only waiting for the warrant to arrest me. It will break my mother's heart -- it will break her heart!"

With a trick he previously used in "The Blue Carbuncle", Conan Doyle elicits the reader's sympathy for the unfortunate John Hector McFarlane by having the young man's thoughts focus on the hurt and shock of his evidently beloved parents to his threatened arrest. Immediately we are made to think: "This is no heartless and self-obsessed crook who thinks of his mother even at the moment of owerwhelming personal anxiety."

But a heartless and self-obsessed crook is exactly what the Norwood Builder is about.

After the lifeless, "Adventure of the Empty House" the Sherlock Holmes short stories recommence and improve with probably the best collection of adventures that Conan Doyle's awesome detective stars in. The "Return of Sherlock Holmes" is a collection that demonstrates Conan Doyle's ability to create life-like characters, unguessable, mind-bending mysteries, and strong, irresistable plots. Here and there the stories fail at the level of detail. But the journey the reader takes from the Norwood Builder to the poignant rapture of the bereft lover in "The Missing Three-Quarter" is an unmissable one for anyone who enjoys the unique pleasure of reading well wrought short tales.

The final story of the series - "The Adventure of the Second Stain" - a delightfully playful sprint which manages to squeeze in a blood-splattered crime-of-passion amidst high politics and low intrique was probably intended as final salute to the skills and achievements of Holmes, and perhaps it would have served well as a swan song for the detective rather than the weak brew that Conan Doyle produced in later years.

The vindictive, badass criminal in "The Norwood Builder" is Jonas Oldacre. A vile, repulsive character who seeks to do cunning revenge on his former lover, by framing her son for murder. The badass aspect of his scheme is the faking of his own murder - a convenient death as he would escape thus from the agony of imposing debts and financial ruin. The reader might well wish Oldacre well in his flight from hungry creditors, but the other thing... well that's pure spite. Sadistic self-indulgence. Unforgivable.

What makes this tale live is the intense effort Holmes must make to save his client from the hangman's deadly embrace.

Inspector Lestrade of Scotland Yard

Lestrade is by a long mile, the least believable recurring character in the Sherlock Holmes stories. He doesn't remain the same from one story to the next. Now he has the face of a ferret, now that of a bulldog, now he is contemptuous of Holmes, now he has respect for Holmes, now again he returns to being sneering and impolite. It is hard to escape the feeling that Lestrade was always a template for an official rival to Holmes, and not a fully drawn character in the mind of Conan Doyle who, as a writer, was perhaps most talented in his ability to create believable personalities.

No matter. In "The Norwood Builder" Lestrade need only be the template. The role Lestrade plays is defined by the cunning scheming of Oldacre and the triumphant reasoning of Holmes. Lestrade sees before him a plainly guilty, greedy young man who sees a small fortune await him on the death of Oldacre and promptly hastens that man's demise. Lestrade has no option but to arrest and to seek to hang the villian. Lestrade confidently walks the path Oldacre has meticulously laid out for him. He is a clockwork toy set to work on a stage prepared for him by a wicked ring-master.

Holmes is presented at the outset of this tale as "cold and proud", yet in this tale, during the course of his efforts on behalf of McFarlane, he is so involved, so distressed and so gripped with anxiety for the fate of his client that one may just about begin to imagine that he has warm-blood flowing through his veins. Warm, compassionate blood. Perhaps he is human after all?

 

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