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Sherlock Holmes didn't *quite* solve the case
Bar Harbor
alexx_kay
I am still working my way through the vast Annotated Sherlock Holmes of Mr. Baring-Gould, with one story before bed on most nights. Last night's was "The Adventure of the Norwood Builder", in which I believe Mr. Holmes made some serious errors.

First, a summary of the case as presented by Watson's account: A young lawyer, L comes to Holmes, frantic that he is about to be accused for a murder he did not commit. Recently L was visited by an old man, a builder by trade, B. B was vaguely known to L as an acquaintance of L's parents. B wanted to make out his will -- with L as sole benficiary! L agreed, and met B at his house late at night to go through his papers. Very late that night, there was a fire in B's back yard, and a large wood-pile was totally consumed before fire-men could put it out. Further inquiry found B missing, some small amounts of blood in his drawing room, L's walking stick, and signs that a large objet had been dragged from B's house out to the woodpile. Suspicion naturally fell on L, as having killed him to inherit, and then having tried to cover up the evidence by burning it. Further examination of the burned woodpile found "charred remains".

Examining the draft of the will that B wrote, Holmes concludes that it was written on a train ride, in some haste. Holmes interviews L's mother, and discovers that B had once been her suitor, but she had broken it off when she discovered him to be a very cruel man, and that B had been vile to her ever since. Examining B's house, Holmes finds, in addition to the "charred organic remains", some melted trouser buttons that match B's clothes. Examining the "papers" that had been left in the room, Holmes finds indications that some valuable securities may be missing. Further, he finds that B's checkbook shows a number of large payments to a Mr. C, a character previously unheard of in this case.

The next day, Holmes is called back in, since Lestrade has found new, utterly convincing evidence. In a slightly out-of-the-way spot, someone has found a bloody thumbprint, and it matches L's thumb. [A footnote discusses how fingerprint matching had just recently been discovered.] Holmes is triumphant, because he is 100% sure that that fingerprint had NOT been there when he examined the house yesterday. Holmes fakes a fire inside B's house -- and B emerges from the secret room where he has been hiding!

Holmes explains events as follows: B had many creditors, and hoped to escape them by "dying". For some time, he had probably been setting up a "double life" as "Mr. C", and shifiting his money in that direction. [Significantly, Holmes mentions "I have not traced these cheques yet".] Seeking also to revenge himself upon L's mother, B decides to frame L for his death. After having set up the initial frame, B realizes that he has a copy of L's thumbprint in a wax seal (from the paperwork they did together), and so adds the detail of the bloody thumbprint. L is freed, and B is arrested on charges of conspiracy, with the possibility of attempted murder being added. Holmes asks B (in the final paragraph) what he put in the woodpile, "A dead dog, or rabbits, or what?", but receives no answer.

I think Holmes' explanation is significantly faulty. There are several discrepancies. Why would B both write himself cheques and take securities? Would this not double his chances of being tracked down after his "death"? Why was the draft of the will written in such haste? We know of no element of B's situation that necessitated such great urgency. And lastly, how could B have been sure that the fire would not be put out before it reduced whatever he put there to "charred organic remains"? If even partial skeletons of dogs or rabbits had been found, his whole scheme would have fallen apart. The only way to be *sure* of a murder accusation would be for their to have been an actual human body in there.

When the large cheques addressed to Mr. C were discovered, the first thing that leaped to *my* mind was blackmail. It is well established that B was an unpleasant, sadistic character; it is perfectly plausible that there might be some event(s) in his past that he would pay money to avoid becoming public. I think that Mr. C was that blackmailer, and that B killed him (possibly premeditated, possibly on the spur of the moment). Either to escape his creditors or (perhaps more likely) to escape C's confederates, B then decided he has to fake his own death. He had lost a lot of money to C, but he could bring with him some valuable securities to help set up a new life. B dragged C's body out into the woodpile, dressed in B's clothes, but didn't burn it right away. He quickly made up the plot to ensnare L. After putting L in the snare, he burned the woodpile and hid. The fire burned hotter and/or longer than he had anticipated, and leaves very little behind (little enough that Holmes can plausibly think that the remains weren't human). B, when confronted with Holmes' version of events, lets it pass, since to correct it would be to open himself to a far more serious charge of murder, and maybe even reveal whatever he had been blackmailed over all this time. So, Holmes caught the criminal -- but not all of his crimes.
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Plausible.

Some notes:

'Securities' could easily be both untracable and (currently) not liquid. Thus there could be a reason for both writing cheques and taking securities.

A bonfire would need to be pretty hot to reduce any body (human or rabbit) to the point where it one could not be told from the other. Not clear that B would know that, but being sure of the opposite seems a stretch.

Certainly, an inquiring into the reality of Mr. C would seem in order.

Norwood Builder

(Anonymous)
You have made some interesting points. But they are far from conclusive. It might well not be easy to reduce "securities" to cash is a short timeframe, so there might be good reason to write cheques to a double identity for spending cash, and bring securities for longer term funds.

As for the question of the need for haste, at least one possible reason would B that if L were to mention the matter to his mother, she would put him on guard against B, so once B has started the scheme, there is some urgency to finish it. Also, it may be that B's creditors were nearing the point of seizing his assets, although this is not mentioned. Or he may have feared this.

It is true that an ideal B would have used a human body, as providing a much better fake. But the level of forensic investigation commonly done at this time was low enough that "rabbits or a dog" might well get by. it is interesting to speculate what Dr Thorndyke would have done with this case. The faked thumbprint inevitably recalls the first published Thorndyke adventure _The Red Thumb Mark_ in which a thumbprint forged in blood is the key feature.

You suggestion of a blackmailer is perfectly plausible, but there is perhaps not as much positive evidence for it as you think. Still it is an interesting idea.

-David E. Siegel
Siegel@acm.org


As for the question of the need for haste, at least one possible reason would B that if L were to mention the matter to his mother, she would put him on guard against B, so once B has started the scheme, there is some urgency to finish it.

That one doesn't wash. The haste was evident in the writing of the will. He could easily have *written* it in leisure, becoming hasty only after bringing L in, if that were the only reason.

[Fearing creditors *is* a plausible reason for haste.]

You suggestion of a blackmailer is perfectly plausible, but there is perhaps not as much positive evidence for it as you think.

I grant that it is far from certain, but there is enough there that I think Holmes was lax to have not investigated the possibility himself.

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