Study Guide Excerpt: The Witness for the Prosecution, a short story by Agatha Christie

Overview

The Witness for the Prosecution, by British author Agatha Christie, is a short story which 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’. 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 compilation, The Witness for the Prosecution and Other Stories.

The story opens, in medias res, as Mr Mayheme, a lawyer who has undertaken the job of defending a young man by the name of Leonard Vole, visits his client in prison. Leonard met, and befriended, Miss Emily French, an elderly, wealthy, single woman. When Miss French turns up dead, killed with a crowbar, Miss Janet Mackenzie, her maid, tells the police that Leonard had convinced Miss French to leave everything to him in her will. Miss Mackenzie adds that Miss French was of the belief that Leonard would one day marry her - despite her being forty years older than he. Mayheme listens to Leonard deny having been involved in Miss French’s death, but he does not know what to believe. Leonard informs Mayheme that Romaine, his wife, will testify that he 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. Mayherne is aware that this will not be of much help as a jury is unlikely to be swayed by the testimony of a wife.

Mayheme then goes to meet with Romaine. The couple live in a small house near Paddington Green. When Mayheme asks her 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 actual husband is confined to an asylum in Austria. 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 letter 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 looking for revenge on Romaine ever since. She then produces love letters that Romaine wrote to this man - Max. One of these is written on the day of Leonard’s arrest. In it, Romaine speaks of Leonard’s innocence and her plans to get revenge and see him hang.

Romaine becomes a witness for the prosecution and testifies against Leonard at the trial. When the letters Mayheme procured 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 certain 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 an elaborate scheme and that, yes, she was the woman who gave them to him. She tells him that she does actually love Leonard and knowing that her word alone would not save him, she conceived a plot that would eventually gain his freedom. In the final lines of the story Romaine admits that Leonard did in fact murder Miss French.

Over time, Christie became unhappy with the way she ended the story. It was 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 capitalises 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 like Hercule Poirot, but 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.