47 pages 1 hour read

Agatha Christie

Witness for the Prosecution

Fiction | Short Story | Adult | Published in 1995

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Summary and Study Guide

Summary: “The Witness for the Prosecution”

“The Witness for the Prosecution” is a short story by British mystery writer Dame Agatha Christie (sometimes referred to as the “Queen of Crime”). First published in 1925 under the title “Traitor’s Hands,” the story was later included under its current name in Christie’s 1933 collection The Hound of Death. Christie herself adapted the story for the stage in 1953, and it has also gone through several incarnations on TV and in film. Although the story centers on a murder, it is somewhat unusual in that it takes the form of a courtroom drama; by contrast, the bulk of Christie’s work consists of detective fiction. All page numbers in this study guide refer to the version of the story published in the 1948 collection The Witness for the Prosecution and Other Stories, and reissued by William Morrow Paperbacks in 2012.

The story begins with a conversation between Mr. Mayherne, a lawyer, and his client Leonard Vole, a handsome 33-year-old man 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” (2). In fact, Mayherne himself believes Vole is likely guilty. Guessing this, Vole protests his innocence, and his apparent sincerity impresses Mayherne favorably.

Mayherne asks Leonard how he knew Miss French. Vole explains that he came to her aid when he saw her drop some packages in the street. Miss French thanked him and Vole went on his way, only to meet her again at a party thrown by a friend. The two chatted for a while, and Miss French invited Vole to visit. After she left, Vole learned from his friend that Miss French was single and very wealthy.

Vole explains his subsequent visits to Miss French as a combination of his inability to say no and his need for a mother figure. Likewise, when she asked him to look into some investments that worried her, he agreed, not knowing that she was, as her maid Janet Mackenzie puts it, “a good woman of business” (6). Vole vehemently denies ever cheating or stealing from Miss French and insists he didn’t know that she had changed her will to make him the primary beneficiary, despite the maid claiming to have overheard a discussion on just this subject.

Mayherne reveals that Miss Mackenzie is a key witness in the murder, as she returned briefly to Miss French’s house at 9:30 p.m. on the night of the murder and heard her talking with a man. Leonard is relieved to hear this, saying that he left Miss French’s house before nine o’clock in the evening and was home with his wife Romaine before 9:30 p.m. Mayherne worries the testimony of a loving wife will not persuade the jury. He also doubts Vole’s suggestion that a burglar was likely responsible for the murder. Nevertheless, he assures Vole that he believes in his innocence and promises to speak to his wife.

Leonard and Romaine’s home is “a small shabby house near Paddington Green” (13). 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 confirm that he did in fact murder Miss French. According to her, Leonard returned home at twenty minutes after ten o’clock in the evening 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.

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. 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 says that in exchange for 200 pounds, she will hand over evidence proving Romaine’s testimony is a lie, and that Vole is innocent.

Mayherne meets Mrs. Mogson in her squalid, dimly-lit room in the slums. 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 a burn mark. She then asks him for the money, but Mayherne insists that he only has 20 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 to free herself 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, “Max” was at one time her own lover; Romaine stole him away from her, and when she pursued the man, he threw acid on her face, disfiguring her.

Mayherne finds a theater employee who confirms Romaine’s whereabouts on the night of the murder. Convinced that Romaine is lying, he passes his evidence on to the trial counsel for the defense.

The trial begins with technical evidence, and then Janet Mackenzie takes the stand. She tells the same story that she told before, reiterating that Miss French hoped to marry Vole; however, she is forced to concede that she can’t definitively identify the man she overheard talking to Miss French on the night of the murder.

Romaine Heilger takes the stand and presents her account of the night of the murder: Leonard left that evening with a crowbar, returned home late with blood on his shirt, and confessed to the killing of Miss French. The counsel for the defense begins his cross-examination by accusing Romaine of making up the entire story, and then produces the damning love letter. Romaine breaks down, confessing that she made the story up, and that Leonard actually returned home at 9:20 p.m., just as he said. Vole then confirms this with his own testimony. The case is turned over to the jury, who quickly return with a not guilty verdict.

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. Suddenly, he pieces it together: Mrs. Mogson, the woman who gave him the love letters, was Romaine Heilger all along.

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” (27). Mayherne insists that he could have obtained Leonard’s acquittal without her antics, but Romaine declares that she could not rely upon Mayherne, knowing as she did that Leonard was actually guilty.