“The community is certainly the gainer, and no one the loser, save the poor out-of-work specialist, whose occupation has gone.”
—“The Adventure of the Norwood Builder”
Upon his return, the great detective feels, understandably, a little out of place.
To wit, Holmes begins “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder” by complaining about his place—or, rather, as the quote above illustrates, the lack of it. For Holmes, as a criminal expert, he explains, the death of Professor Moriarty, while an overall benefit for the citizens of greater London, consequently casts a long shadow on the future of his chosen occupation. As with many of the “consulting room” stories found in the canon, the reader finds the details of the case told by the client seem to relate to Holmes’s earlier musings, and “Norwood Builder” is no exception. Again treading in the familiar firmament of revenge and blackmail, Conan Doyle imbues the story with specific references to places, general and specific: from Watson’s medical practice to the locales instrumental to the story’s dénouement. Referring to his own figurative place and lot in life, Holmes himself provides a demonstration of various forensic techniques, from analysis of handwriting and fingerprints to witness interviewing as counterpoint to both his earlier questioning of his future place in crime-solving as well as the admonishments of a skeptical Inspector Lestrade.
We begin with locales. Conan Doyle himself had lived on Tennison Road in South Norwood (near Croydon) from 1891 to 1894, the date in which “Norwood Builder” was set. Although this area is not, as many readers may assume, the exact setting, the author surely would have had some familiarity with the “Lower Norwood” environs (now West Norwood) that feature prominently in the story. Besides the city of London and Norwood, the other suburb featured in the story, Blackheath (between Greenwich and Lewisham), was also quite familiar to Conan Doyle, as it was the birthplace of Jean Leckie, Conan Doyle’s long-time companion, whom he would eventually marry in 1906, three years after “Norwood Builder” appeared in The Strand. Within these places we see specific mentions of others that, far from imagined, were very much a real part of London in the new century. One such place is the Anerley Arms Hotel, where the young lawyer John McFarlane lodged, and still exists today. Another is that of Jonas Oldacre’s tailors, Hyams & Co. As Leslie Katz noted in a carefully researched 2012 article on the subject:
It seems probable that Conan Doyle made one of his not-uncommon slips in such matters and that, intending to refer to the name “Hyam”, he instead mistakenly referred to a variant of that name, “Hyams”…That conclusion is supported by the facts that a company, “Hyam & Co. Limited”, with the distinguishing word, “Hyam”, in its name, seems both to have: (1) been in the tailoring business at the date of the story’s action, writing and first publication; and (2) used buttons on the clothing that it sold, which buttons, although they didn’t bear on them the word “Hyams”, did bear on them the word “Hyam” as the distinguishing word in the company’s name.
From these examples, we see that Conan Doyle’s imaginative use of place in “The Adventure of the Norwood Builder” does much to ground a post-Hiatus Holmes in the real world and in the present day, just as his keen deductions prove again to Lestrade that he hasn’t quite lost his place in the world of solving even the most intricate of criminal schemes.