Witness for the Prosecution Summary

Agatha Christie

Witness for the Prosecution

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Witness for the Prosecution Summary

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“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 Flynn’s Weekly in January of 1925 under the title “Traitor Hands”. The story 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 compilation, The Witness for the Prosecution and Other Stories.

As the story opens, Mr. Mayheme, a British solicitor has undertaken the job of defending a young man by the name of Leonard Vole. At a party, Leonard meets an old woman named Emily French. He finds out that she is not only taken with him, but that she is a woman of some wealth and he begins to visit her. Soon, Emily turns up dead and Janet, Emily’s maid, tells the police that Leonard had convinced Emily to leave everything to him in her will. Janet adds that Emily was of the belief that Leonard would one day marry her, in spite of the fact that she was forty years older than he was. Mayheme listens to Leonard deny having been involved in Emily’s death, but he does not know what to believe. Leonard informs Mayheme that Romaine, Leonard’s wife and an Austrian actress, will testify that Leonard was with her when the murder took place. Mayheme inquires about the state of their marriage. Leonard calls Romaine a devoted wife who would do anything for him, but he is aware that this will not be of much help, as a jury is unlikely to be swayed by the testimony of his wife.

Mayheme then goes to meet with Romaine. When Mayheme asks Romaine if she is in love with her husband, she reacts with laughter. She tells Mayheme that Leonard is not really her husband but that they live together because her husband is confined to an asylum. She asks if Mayheme is convinced that Leonard is innocent. She further asks him what would happen if she got up in court and told everyone that he arrived home on the night of the murder with blood on his coat and admitted to the crime. Mayheme does not know what to think at this point and worries about how much Romaine seems to hate Leonard.

On the night before the trial, Mayheme receives a note that, while almost illegible, contains an offer of information about Romaine. He meets an old woman at a rundown apartment in the slums. The woman has a disfigured face. She tells Mayheme that Romaine stole a man from her; the same man who disfigured her face. The woman says she has been after Romaine ever since. She then produces love letters that Romaine wrote to a man named Max. In the letters, Romaine discusses her plans to get revenge against Leonard at the trial.

Romaine becomes a witness for the prosecution and testifies against Leonard at the trial. When the letters Mayheme procired from the old woman are presented as evidence, Romaine loses her composure and admits to having made up the story of Leonard’s confession in order to get even with him. With her testimony thus discredited, so too is the case against Leonard. As Mayheme prepares to congratulate Leonard on their victory, he notices Romaine moving her hands in a certain way as she talks. He feels that he has seen that gesture before. He realizes that the old woman who gave him Romaine’s letters made the same gestures with her hands. He connects this to the fact that Romaine is an actress and realizes that she and the old woman are the same person. Upon the conclusion of the trial, Mayheme approaches Romaine and tells her what he observed. She admits that the letters were part of a scheme and that, yes, she was the woman who gave them to him. She tells him that she is actually a devoted spouse and knowing that her word alone would not save Leonard, she conceived a plot that eventually gained his freedom. The story ends with her admitting that Leonard did in fact commit the murder.

Over time, Agatha Christie became unhappy with the way she ended the story. It was one of the very few instances in Christie’s 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.