Sir Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Sherlock Holmes” stories generally deal with murder, insidious crimes and revenge, but another recurring theme in the series is estate disputes.

The Adventure of the Norwood Builder” begins when Holmes and his companion, Watson, are visited by a Mr. MacFarlane, a “wild-eyed and frantic” young man who has been pursued by the police and charged with the murder of Mr. Oldacre, an eccentric and reclusive bachelor. Mr. MacFarlane swears upon his innocence, but his situation is forlorn, as Mr. Oldacre, on the day he was allegedly murdered, prepared a holograph Will in which he gave everything to Mr. MacFarlane.

Upon inspection of the holograph Will, Holmes deduces that it was written on a train, since there are some sentences that are clear and discernible, and others which are illegible – “the good writing represents stations, the bad writing movement”. According to Holmes, this corroborates Mr. MacFarlane’s credibility:

“It is curious – is it not? – that a man should draw up so important a document in so haphazard a fashion. It suggests that he did not think it was going to be of much practical importance.”

Holmes becomes more suspicious of the official narrative when he discovers, amongst other things, that prior to his death, Mr. Oldacre transferred his assets to a mysterious unknown, Mr. Cornelius.

In estate litigation in Ontario, it is common practice for litigants to employ handwriting experts to investigate the authenticity of documents and signatures, but they, likely cautious and mindful of their professional reputations, may be less inclined to make such momentous and bold inferences. In cracking the case (spoiler alert!), Holmes certainly employs measures that go far beyond those available to present-day estate litigators, experts, investigators, and the authorities.

Working with some suggestive facts – such as that Mr. Oldacre executed his Will sloppily and that he transferred his wealth to one party while designating another party as his estate beneficiary – Sherlock Holmes deduces that Mr. Oldacre has faked his own death, framed Mr. MacFarlane, and transferred his wealth to the fictitious Mr. Cornelius, who is in fact himself, in order to defraud his creditors. In an effort to vindicate his theory and save Mr. MacFarlane, Holmes invites the police into Mr. Oldacre’s home, instructs Watson to put a match to some straw, and then, when there is a blaze and smoke billowing within the house, Holmes has the police yell “fire”:

A door suddenly flew open out of what appeared to be solid wall at the end of the corridor, and a little, wizened man darted out of it, like a rabbit out of its burrow. ‘Capital!’ said Holmes, calmly. ‘Watson, a bucket of water over the straw … allow me to present you with your principal missing witness, Mr. Jonas Oldacre.’”

These types of truth-finding artifices, though extreme and unorthodox, are within the purview of the unofficial detective. Estate litigators, on the other hand, operate under the stricter ambit of the Law Society of Ontario, which would likely frown upon such irregular practices.

Thank you for reading – have a great day,

Suzana Popovic-Montag & Devin McMurtry