At the request of Sherlock Holmes, Dr. Watson has returned to his former lodgings at 221B and has sold his Kensington practice. He mentions that he got top rate for it from a doctor who, he will discover years down the road, is a distant relation of Holmes. So it is that we return to the formula that started it all, without any extraneous character relations to keep our duo off the scent of the great crimes. But Holmes fears there are no more great crimes to be had in the wake of Moriarty’s demise.
It is during this lament that they are visited by “the unhappy John Hector McFarlane,” a young lawyer from Blackheath who lives with his parents. McFarlane is accused of murdering a client, a builder named Jonas Oldacre who had come to his office only the previous day in order to draw up a will in legal language. To his astonishment, McFarlane saw that Oldacre was leaving him as the sole beneficiary of a sizable estate, though McFarlane couldn’t imagine why. McFarlane found need to go to Oldacre’s house in Norwood to examine some documents. He stayed until late and stayed the night at a local inn. He read about Oldacre’s murder in the newspaper the next morning on the train, where he also learned the police were looking for him. At the scene, McFarlane’s stick was found, and an extinguished fire outside was discovered along with the smell of burnt flesh. The time of the murder and the fire line up with the time McFarlane is known to have been there.
Inspector Lestrade arrives to arrest his suspect, not even resisting the urge to gloat. Holmes convinces Lestrade to allow McFarlane to tell his story, which will be entered into record. Holmes then states that he will go to Blackheath to launch his investigation, which Lestrade questions as the crime clearly took place at Norwood. Holmes learns that McFarlane’s mother was previously engaged to Oldacre some years earlier, but when Oldacre let a cat loose in a bird sanctuary, she called off the engagement for the man’s cruelty, wanting nothing further to do with him. Even so, Lestrade persists in his official explanation of events because the man simply cannot be wrong when sparring with Holmes.
The handwritten notes from Oldacre are scrawled in a rough manner that suggests to Holmes they were written on a train, with legible segments possibly written at the stops. Several cheques for large amounts — and for unknown reasons — have been made out to a Mr. Cornelius. when buttons from Oldacre’s trousers are revealed to have been discovered in the fire, Holmes suggests that the housekeeper is holding back evidence.
A bloody thumbprint is found at Oldacre’s house matching McFarlane’s exactly, which seems to be about as damning as it can get. Holmes, of course, suspects something more treacherous as he had examined that part of the house a day earlier, and the thumbprint was not there, and McFarlane had already been in custody.
Holmes sets a small fire in one room of the house and convinces Lestrade to order three of his loud constables to shoud “Fire!” The result, as Holmes surmised, brings forth Oldacre himself, alive and well, from a hidden chamber at the end of a hall. Oldacre is immediately captured, and it is revealed the entire matter was part of an elaborate revenge plot against the woman who once rejected him. He assures all concerned that “it was a joke,” but to no avail. He’s dragged off in custody.
Holmes reveals that the hall here was six feet shorter than the one beneath it, thus deducing the chamber that a builder could hide from prying eyes. Likewise, he deduces that Mr. Cornelius is an alias whereby Oldacre could essentially bequeath himself his fortune and live under a double identity. The account is to be seized by creditors. Oldacre swears vengeance against Holmes, and Holmes just scoffs as only Holmes can. And much to Lestrade’s surprise, Holmes opts to take zero credit for the case, allowing his Scotland Yard to take full credit and save themselves the embarrassment of arresting the wrong suspect.
It’s interesting to note that this is one of the few stories in the canon that features fingerprinting as a positive clue, even though in this case it was decidedly falsified. Also of note is that the idea of a wax thumbprint reproduction was created by Bertram Fletcher Robinson, who also helped to plot The Hound of the Baskervilles. Conan Doyle purchased the idea for use in this story.
Also of note are unrecorded cases that Watson mentions at the top of the story that Holmes would investigate about the same time as this one. Watson refers to “the case of the papers of Ex-President Murillo,” which will later become “The Adventure of Wisteria Lodge.” Another case, “the shocking affair of the Dutch steamship Friesland” will go unrecorded in the canon, but would form the loose inspiration for the 1945 film Pursuit to Algiers starring fan favorite Basil Rathbone in the role of the Great Detective.