“From the point of view of the criminal expert,” said Mr. Sherlock Holmes, “London has become a singularly uninteresting city since the death of Professor Moriarty.”
The Norwood Builder is the first proper glimpse of Holmes readers in 1903 would have enjoyed in a decade (barring The Hound of the Baskervilles). Here is the great detective, accepting a consultation and working a normal case in much the way he had done 10 years before, in the adventures collected in Memoirs. The complaint quoted above is more in character for the detached problem-solver than the crusader for justice of The Final Problem. This story very much gives us back the Holmes of earlier stories, right down to Watson sharing rooms with him again. And yet it adds too a few new crinkles – Conan Doyle might even be enjoying himself a little.
There are firstly some lovely moments of rivalry between amateur and professional: “It is Lestrade’s little cock-a-doodle of victory,” Holmes sighs at a gloating telegram from Scotland Yard, and the climax of the story is a memorable bit of Holmesian theatre put on principally to put Lestrade back in his place. “You are too many for me when you begin to get on your theories, Mr Holmes,” Lestrade laughs at one point, and in that laugh we see the change in their relationship: though rivals, they are now also somewhat affectionate friends. At the end of the story, Lestrade is not annoyed or embarrassed by Holmes, but rather takes the ribbing in good sport. It’s a nice touch, and one of those little twists of characterisation which grant the Holmes stories more depth than they perhaps sometimes earn.
The way in which Holmes ‘solves’ this case undoubtedly shows some of these habitual weaknesses: it is built almost entirely on supposition and circumstantial links. Even the closing words of the story, in which Holmes guesses that the animal remains found in a wood-pile outside the Norwood house were rabbits, is total guesswork, as if Conan Doyle is himself aware of the flaws in his narrative. To his credit, the clues – a spurned lover and some over-sized cheques – are for once included in the investigation, yet Holmes’s crucial measuring of the corridor is decidedly less prominent, until of course he reveals that he did it. Holmes’s explanation of how a thumbprint might be forged strains credulity, but his conviction that it is faked is at least based in his well-known love of painstaking detail.
Indeed, there might be a better explanation for Holmes’s curious intent in trying his luck and pinning hopes on theories with the vaguest of evidence. “All my instincts are one way and all the facts are the other,” Holmes at one point opines, and it seems fair to say that he sticks to the case largely because he has been hired to do so: the story refers to McFarlane as Holmes’s “client” with unusual frequency, and the detective’s commitment to the case resemble’s a legal brief’s. If he is ultimately proven right, it is tenacity more than skill which sees Holmes crack the case, however dramatically. He declines to be mentioned in the papers, but of course this is part of his plan to remain incognito (remember, the adventure is dated 1894, whilst Watson is ostensibly writing it up, finally freed to do so, many years later).
All this makes for a story more complex than it might at first seem: strong characterisation (including a decidedly cavalier Holmes), a colder view of the detective’s profession than we are perhaps used to, and the final twist – never quite dismissed out of hand, though he is denounced a villain in the usual moralistic fashion – that the whole ‘crime’ was merely a big practical joke (“that is for the jury to decide,” Holmes shrugs). A return, certainly – but a by no means a retread.