Witness for the Prosecution Summary and Study Guide

Agatha Christie

Witness for the Prosecution

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Witness for the Prosecution Summary and Study Guide

SuperSummary, a modern alternative to SparkNotes and CliffsNotes, offers high-quality study guides for challenging works of literature. This 25-page guide for the short story “Witness for the Prosecution” by Agatha Christie includes detailed a summary and analysis, as well as several more in-depth sections of expert-written literary analysis. Featured content includes commentary on major characters, 15 important quotes, essay topics, and key themes like Lies and Deception and Perception and Prejudice.

“The Witness for the Prosecution,” by British author Agatha Christie, is a short story that was later turned into a play. It was originally published in the periodical Flynns Weekly in January of 1925, under the title “Traitor Hands.” It was first published under the title “The Witness for the Prosecution”in the United Kingdom in 1933, when Christie’s collection, The Hound of Death, was released. In the United States, the story was first published in the 1948 collection, The Witness for the Prosecution and Other Stories.

The story begins with a conversation between Mr.Mayherne, a lawyer who often catches himself mindlessly cleaning his spectacles, and his client, Leonard Vole, a 33-year-old, handsome man who is accused of the murder of Miss Emily French, an elderly, wealthy, woman he recently befriended. Mayherne stresses to his client the gravity of the situation in which he finds himself: “I must impress upon you again that you are in very grave danger, and that the utmost frankness is necessary” (5). Leonard, however, seems dazed, as if he cannot believe what he has been accused of. Mayherne tells him that the best strategy is simply to reveal everything, so that Mayherne can figure out the most appropriate defense. Leonard takes this to mean that Mayherne suspects him of being guilty, and assures his lawyer that he did not murder anyone. Despite the evidence, Mayherne finds himself believing Leonard: “You are right, Mr Vole. The case does look very black against you. Nevertheless, I accept your assurance” (6).

Mayherne asks Leonard how he knew the victim, Miss Emily French, a woman in her 70s. Leonard states that one day, on Oxford Street, he saw her having difficulty crossing the street because she was overloaded with packages. When she got to the middle of the street, she dropped the packages and was almost run over by a bus. Leonard had helped her pick up the parcels and cleaned the dirt off them for her. He said that Miss French thanked him, was very grateful, and communicated that his manners were not the same as those of most of the younger generation. That same night, he saw her again at a party thrown by his friend, George Harvey. He spent some time talking to her, and she seemed to take a liking to him:“She was, I imagine, an old lady who took sudden violent fancies to people. She took one to me on the strength of a perfectly simple action which anyone might have performed” (7). French invites Vole to come over and visit her, and when he agrees, she puts him on the spot to commit to a specific day. Leonard agrees to visit her the following Saturday. After she leaves, Leonard discovers she is very wealthy, single, and lives with at least eight cats.

Mayherne tries to determine exactly when Leonard found out that Miss French was wealthy, stating that such a fact could be important to how the jury reacts to him. If he did not know the woman was wealthy at first—and indeed, she was not the type to appear wealthy at first glance—then the jury would view Leonard as a charitable man, rather than an opportunist. The issue is an important one, Mayherne states, because the prosecution will argue that Leonard was in dire financial straits at the time, which was true, and will think he only agreed to spend time with her to get at her money. However, Leonard cannot establish or prove exactly when he found out about Miss French’s wealth, only that he was told by his friend, George Harvey, who threw the party Leonard was attending.

Mayherne asks Leonard why, as a young man who is good-looking, sporty and popular, he would spend so much time with a single, elderly woman. Leonard suggests it was a combination of his inability to say no and his need for a motherly figure in his life, since his own mother died when he was a child. Mayherne considers this answer satisfactory, though he does not know how a jury will respond to it. He then asks when Leonard started assisting Miss French with the management of her finances. Leonard states that after he had visited the woman several times, she had asked him to look into some investments that worried her. Mayherne points out that Miss French’s bankers and her maid, a woman named Janet Mackenzie, contend that the woman was very financially savvy and did not need a man to take care of things for her. However, Mayherne answers his own skepticism with a reasonable explanation: Miss French used her financial dealings as a way to appear helpless and convince Leonard that she needed his expertise. As Mayherne sees it: “She was enough of a woman of the world to realize that any man is slightly flattered by such an admission of his superiority” (11).

Mayherne then asks Leonard if he ever helped himself to any of her money when handing her finances. A shrewd lawyer, Mayherne sees two possible ways of defending his client, depending upon how he answers the question. If Leonard did not take any of Miss French’s money, it would show him to be an honest and trustworthy person. However, if he did make a habit of swindling her out of some of her fortune, he would then have a motive for keeping the woman alive, so he could continue bilking her. Leonard insists that he did not take any of Miss French’s money: “My dealings with Miss French’s affairs are all perfectly fair and above board. I acted for her interests to the very best of my ability, as anyone will find who looks into the matter” (12).

Mayherne then points out the most problematic piece of evidence: Miss French changed her will shortly before she died, making Leonard the main beneficiary of her fortune. Leonard insists that he did not know about it, though Janet Mackenzie contends that Leonard not only knew about it, but that Miss French discussed it with him on more than one occasion. Leonard insists that Miss Mackenzie must have misunderstood, though he also notes that the maid, protective of her employer, did not like him:

Janet is an elderly woman. She was a faithful watchdog to her mistress, and she didn’t like me. She was jealous and suspicious. I should say that Miss French confided her intentions to Janet, and that Janet either mistook something she said, or else was convinced in her own mind that I had persuaded the old lady into doing it (13-14).

Mayherne reveals that Miss Mackenzie is a key witness in the murder, as she returned briefly to Miss French’s house at nine-thirty on the night the woman was murdered and heard her talking with a man in the sitting room. Leonard is relieved to hear this, because he insists that he left Miss French’s house before nine and was home with his wife, Romaine, before nine-thirty. Mayherne promises that he will take a statement from Mrs. Vole as soon as she returns from a trip to Scotland, but he is still troubled by nagging questions: If Leonard did not murder Miss French, who did? And who was French having a friendly conversation with at nine-thirty in the evening? He asks Leonard who he thinks may have murdered Miss French, to which he responds, “Why, a burglar, of course, as was thought at first. The window was forced, you remember. She was killed with a heavy blow from a crowbar, and the crowbar was found lying on the floor beside the body” (15).

Mayherne asks if anyone else can confirm Leonard’s alibi, but Leonard tells him there is no one other than a bus conductor, on a bus that he rode part of the way home. The lawyer is hardly encouraged by the thought of a devoted wife vouching for her beloved husband, since it may not be enough to convince the jury. Mayherne then reveals that Janet Mackenzie has stated that Miss French believed Vole to be single, and that she had hoped to marry him sometime in the future. Vole laughs: “Absurd! There was forty years difference in age between us!” (17). Vole confesses that his wife never met Miss French, and that he never explicitly told Miss French that he was married. Leonard admits that he hoped she would see him as a sort of adopted son and would offer to help him out financially. But he did not attempt to seduce her, or convince her to marry him.

Despite Vole’s unscrupulous behavior, Mayherne states his belief in the man’s innocence and insists he will try his best to exonerate him: “I believe in your innocence in spite of the multitude of facts arrayed against you. I hope to prove it and vindicate you completely” (18). He tells Leonard that the outcome of the trial much depends on the testimony of Janet Mackenzie, who hates Leonard Vole. Leonard protests that Miss Mackenzie cannot possibly hate him. Mayherne leaves and heads for the Vole residence, hoping to speak to Mrs. Vole.

Leonard and Romaine’s home is “a small shabby house near Paddington Green” (19). Mayherne is surprised to discover that Mrs. Vole isn’t English, but Austrian. She is also a former actress. She insists upon hearing the details of the case against her husband. Mayherne obliges, ending with the fact that Mrs. Vole is the only one who can confirm his alibi on the night of the murder. Romaine asks if her testimony will be enough to clear her husband, but Mayherne does not appear optimistic.

Romaine then changes her attitude abruptly, telling Mayherne that she hates her husband, and that her testimony will actually confirm that he did in fact murder Miss French. According to her, Leonard returned home at twenty minutes after ten with blood on his coat and even confessed to her that he had done it. Mayherne notes that courts cannot force spouses to testify against one another, but Romaine reveals that she and Leonard never actually married. In fact, she is already married to another man in Austria, who is in an insane asylum. Mayherne asks why she feels such bitterness for Leonard, but she will not answer. Although he doubts the woman’s story, he realizes that his duty to defend his client has just become much more difficult: “This is going to be the devil of a business. Extraordinary, the whole thing. An extraordinary woman. A very dangerous woman. Women were the devil when they got their knife into you” (23-24).

The police court proceedings commence. The main witnesses for the prosecution are Janet Mackenzie and Romaine, whose last name is not actually Vole but Heilger. Both witnesses are damaging to Leonard’s defense, but Mayherne tries to implicate a nephew of Miss French’s as the culprit. This seems plausible, since the man had asked her for money before and had recently gone missing from the places he used to frequent. Then, on the day before the trial is set to begin, Mayherne receives a poorly-written letter from a woman calling herself Mrs. Mogson. In the letter, Mrs. Mogson claims that she can prove Romaine’s testimony is a lie, and that Leonard is innocent. If Mayherne is willing to pay her 200 pounds, she will hand over this crucial evidence.

Mayherne has no other options available and so meets Mrs. Mogson in her squalid, dimly-lit room at “a ramshackle building in an evil-smelling slum” (26). The woman is middle-aged. Her face is partly obscured by a scarf, and she has a nervous habit of clenching and unclenching her fists. Mogson notices Mayherne staring at the scarf and pulls it away to reveal an “almost formless blur of scarlet” (27) that causes him to recoil. Mrs. Mogson asks him for the money, but Mayherne insists that he only has twenty pounds to give her. She reluctantly agrees and offers Mayherne a bundle of love letters.

The letters are from Romaine to a man addressed as Max. In the most recent one, written on the day of Leonard’s arrest, Romaine lays out her plan to lie about Leonard’s whereabouts and get him convicted of a crime he could not have committed, all so she will be free of him. Mrs. Mogson also insists that on the night of the murder, Romaine was not waiting at home for her husband and was instead at the Lion Road Cinema with her mystery man. According to Mrs. Mogson, the unnamed recipient of the letters is a man she once loved. Romaine stole him away from her, and when she pursued the man, he threw acid on her face, disfiguring her. This explains her hatred for Romaine, and her desire to see the woman exposed as a liar in court.

Mayherne confirms Romaine’s whereabouts at 10p.m. on the night of the murder thanks to an employee at the theater, who recognizes Romaine from a photo. According to the employee, she and her male companion were at the theater for about an hour. Mayherne is convinced that Romaine’s testimony against Leonard is completely false, and once again he sees hope of clearing his client’s name. He passes his evidence on to the trial counsel for the defense, known only as “Sir Charles.”Mayherne himself is not able to participate in the trial, since the British legal system of the time required two different types of lawyers: solicitors like Mayherne, who dealt with clients directly; and advocates, who represented the clients in court proceedings but otherwise did not deal with them.

The trial begins, and the various sordid details of the case—including the murder of a wealthy old woman, and the damning testimony of Romaine Heilger against her former lover—awaken the interest of the public. Technical evidence is given first and then Janet Mackenzie takes the stand. She tells the same story that she told before, and offers what she knows about the relationship between Miss French and Leonard. The counsel for the defense is able to shake her testimony only slightly, and points out that although she heard Miss French speaking with a man on the night she was murdered, she cannot identify Leonard as that man. He also claims that jealousy and dislike of the prisoner are the reasons for her evidence.

Romaine Heilger takes the stand and presents her account of the night of the murder: Leonard had left that evening with a crowbar, returned home late with blood on his shirt, and confessed to the killing of Miss French. He then burned his clothes in the kitchen stove and threatened Romaine, in order to keep her quiet about it. The counsel for the defense begins his cross-examination by accusing Romaine of making up the entire story, which she denies. Then he produces the fateful love letter, which reveals Romaine’s plan to get Leonard convicted, despite his innocence. Romaine breaks down on the stand and confesses that she made the story up, and that Leonard actually returned home at 9:20pm, just as he said. Leonard then confirms this with his own testimony. The case is turned over to the jury, who quickly return with a verdict: “We find the prisoner not guilty” (34).

Mayherne is pleased with the verdict but cannot help wondering about the motive behind Romaine Heilger’s false testimony. When he pictures her in his mind, he recalls that she had a habit of nervously clenching and unclenching her fists, not unlike his own habit of absentmindedly cleaning his glasses. Suddenly, he pieces it together: Mrs. Mogson, the woman who gave him the love letters, was Romaine Heilger all along. She was an actress, capable of changing her voice and personality, and skilled enough at applying make-up to fake a quickly-revealed disfigurement in a poorly-lit room. However, she could not hide the unconscious habit she had of clenching and unclenching her hands.

Mayherne encounters Romaine sometime later and confronts her with his suspicions. She confesses it all, stating that it was the only way she could convince the jury of Leonard’s innocence: “My friend—I had to save him. The evidence of a woman devoted to him would not have been enough—you hinted as much yourself” (36). It was all an act, inspired by her love for Leonard and her dedication to securing his freedom; there was no “Max” at all. Mayherne insists that he could have obtained Leonard’s acquittal without her antics, but Romaine declares that she could not rely upon Mayherne to prove Leonard’s innocence, especially because she knew all along that he was actually guilty.

Over time, Agatha Christie became unhappy with the way she ended the story. It is one of the very few instances in her work where a murderer goes unpunished. When she rewrote the story as a play, she amended the ending by adding a character who was a mistress to Leonard. The mistress and Leonard are about to abandon Romaine (although the character has been renamed Christine in the play) who will be arrested for perjury. At this point, Romaine takes up a knife and kills Leonard with it.

“The Witness for the Prosecution” contains many of the qualities that make Christie’s mystery fiction successful: a scandalous murder; an elaborate plot, in which even the most basic truths are not what they seem; and a twist ending that both capitalizes upon and tweaks the rules by which crime fiction authors are expected to play. However, it is also unique among her more famous works for several reasons. For one, it does not feature one of her trademark literary detectives, such as Hercule Poirot, and instead focuses on a lawyer who does not appear in any of her other stories. Secondly, the murder has already occurred, and the police have already arrested a solid suspect. Finally, there appear to be no other viable suspects for the crime.

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