Discussing a story with our regular crew at Peoria Library's Sherlock Holmes Story Society is always a mentally profitable venture for me, and our latest outing, on "Norwood Builder," gave me a new appreciation for that often-overlooked, but completely brilliant tale.
Before the gathering, I had theorized about the tale giving us a secret return of Moriarty, who could have been responsible for Oldacre's crazed plan, but not Oldacre screwing it up by trying to add a detail Oldacre himself forgot, late in the game. But then we got to talking about it, and I got a hard look at Lestrade.
"Norwood Builder" flows so wonderfully as a story because Sherlock Holmes has a roller coaster of a trajectory in this investigation. He's up, he's down, he's up again . . . and Lestrade! Lestrade is acting like this is the chance of a lifetime to finally get one over on Sherlock.
"It is Lestrade's little cock-a-doodle of victory," Holmes says bitterly at one point in the story, after the Scotland Yard inspector sends a telegram saying "Important fresh evidence to hand. McFarlane's guilt definitely established. Advise you to abandon case."
It's a bold move for Lestrade, very different from the guy in A Study in Scarlet who wanted Holmes's view, but didn't seem 100% sure of the consulting detective's results. No, the Lestrade of "Norwood Builder" knows full well that Holmes is the man to beat, having been made Strand Magazine famous by John Watson. And Lestrade is going for it.
But, as we know will happen, and does so enjoyably in this tale, Sherlock Holmes vindicates himself gloriously. Lestrade's response? When the missing Oldacre is firmly in hand, Lestrade tells the constables to take the old man downstairs, and once the other policemen are gone, he says this:
"I could not speak before the constables, but I don't mind saying in the presence of Dr. Watson, that this is the brightest thing that you have done yet, though it is a mystery to me how you did it. You have saved an innocent man's life, and you have prevented a very grave scandal, which would have ruined my reputation in the Force."
Just how great is Lestrade's reputation with his fellow policemen in 1894? Do most of them even know Holmes is back, and whatever esteeem they had built up for Lestrade during Holmes's hiatus from London was going to take a solid blow? Lestrade's act of sending those other cops away before speaking his mind is a very telling detail, and one that there has to be plenty of story behind.
The relationship between Sherlock Holmes and Scotland Yard's most Holmes-friendly inspector definitely evolved over time, but the place we find it in "Norwood Builder" is perhaps the most fascinating point of all, and one more mark of this tale's distinction.