Thursday, May 08, 2014

Building a Mystery

"The Adventure of the Norwood Builder" is a rather fun mystery in the Sherlock Holmes canon. This despite the fact that the secret behind the puzzle is quite predictable, and the behavior of the culprit truly mystifying.

Holmes is contracted by a lawyer about to be arrested for a murder he did not commit. The lawyer was retained to draw up a will for an eccentric old bachelor. Stranger still, the provisions of the will establish the lawyer himself as sole inheritor, casting him as the sole suspect when the old man turns up dead the very next day. Though Holmes believes in his client's innocence, he finds himself hard-pressed to find any evidence that doesn't in fact corroborate the official investigation's theory of events.

The twist makes the story on this occasion. The body of the victim has been burned to ash in a fire, concealing any evidence that might reveal the crime. It isn't difficult for the reader to imagine why this is; the man has in fact staged his own death and framed the poor lawyer.

Still, despite this foreseeable outcome, the journey to it is quite entertaining. Holmes is quite frustrated in his investigation this time, and seeing him unable to prove one of his own hypotheses makes for a nice variation on the formula. Also different, a bit of fingerprint evidence turns up in the course of the mystery. Although the uniqueness of fingerprints was hardly a new concept even in Arthur Conan Doyle's time, it's an aspect he'd never much used in his writings. The mystery has a somewhat more modern feel for its inclusion.

But there is another aspect to the tale that threatens to bring everything down, were the rest not quite so fun. The culprit, having pulled off the perfect crime right down to transferring most of his money to an alias he intends to assume, decides to hide in a secret room inside his own house, remaining there for days. It's incomprehensible why, with an escape plan already in place, this man wouldn't simply hit the road as soon as his "death" had been faked. Sure, it makes for one of Holmes' typically showy reveals when he catches the man, but the criminal could have gotten away with it. (And indeed, because he lingers, he comes to feel a need to embellish his frame job, and that's what allows Holmes to capture him.) Sure, a criminal is unlikely to win in a Sherlock Holmes story, but does he have to make it so easy?

Still, despite the flaws in its construction, I found "The Norwood Builder" to be one of the lighter and more enjoyable Holmes adventures. I give it a B.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Cool story. What I love most about Doyle's mysteries are the setups, the premises. Even when the resolution doesn't live up to our expectations, the basic puzzle is usually a fascinating construction.

And criminals do sometimes win over Holmes, which is something I have very rarely (if ever!) found in other detective stories.