‘‘The Witness for the Prosecution’’ begins with a conversation between Mr. Mayherne, a lawyer who often catches himself mindlessly cleaning his spectacles, and his client Leonard Vole, a thirty-three-year-old man who is accused of murder. Mayherne stresses to his client the gravity of the situation in which he finds himself; the younger man 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. Vole takes this to mean that Mayherne suspects him of being guilty, and he assures his lawyer that he did not murder anyone. Despite the evidence, Mayherne finds himself believing Vole.
The lawyer asks Vole how he knew the victim, Miss Emily French. Vole states that one day, he saw her having difficulty crossing the street because she was overloaded with packages. Because she was an older woman in her seventies, Vole took it upon himself to help her make it across the street with all her parcels, and she thanked him. That same night, he saw her again at a party thrown by a friend. He spent some time talking to her, and she seemed to take a liking to him. She invited him to come over and visit her, and when he agreed, she put him on the spot to commit to a specific day. After she left, Vole discovered she was very wealthy, single, and lived with at least eight cats.
Mayherne tries to determine exactly when Vole 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 Vole as a charitable man rather than an opportunist. The issue is an important one, Mayherne states, because the prosecution will argue that Vole 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, Vole 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 Vole was attending.
Mayherne asks Vole why he would spend so much time with a single elderly woman. Vole 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 Vole started assisting Miss French with the management of her finances. Vole 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 Vole 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.’’
Mayherne then asks Vole if he ever helped himself to any of her money when handling her finances. A shrewd lawyer, Mayherne sees two possible ways of defending his client, depending upon how he answers the question. If Vole 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. Vole insists that he did not take any of Miss French’s money.
Mayherne then points out a most problematic piece of evidence: Miss French changed her will shortly before she died, making Vole the main beneficiary of her fortune. Vole insists that he did not know about it, though Janet Mackenzie contends that Vole not only knew about it, but that Miss French discussed it with Vole on more than one occasion. Vole insists Mackenzie misunderstood, though he also notes that the maid—protective of her employer—did not like him.
Mayherne reveals that Mackenzie is a key witness in the murder, because 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. Vole is relieved to hear this, because he insists that he left Miss French’s house before nine and was home with his wife Romaine by 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 Vole did not murder Miss French, who did? And who was the woman having a friendly conversation with at nine-thirty in the evening? Mayherne asks if anyone else can confirm Vole’s alibi, but Vole tells him no. 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 at the absurdity of this but confesses that his wife never met Miss French, and that he never explicitly told Miss French that he was married. Vole 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 Vole. Mayherne leaves and heads for the Vole residence, hoping to speak to Mrs. Vole. He is surprised to discover that she is not English, but Austrian—a former actress. She insists upon hearing the details of the case against her husband. Mayherne obliges, ending with the fact that she 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, Vole 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 Vole 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 Vole, 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.
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 Vole’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 letter, poorly written, from a woman calling herself Mrs. Mogson. The letter claims that she can prove Romaine’s testimony is a lie if Mayherne is willing to pay her two hundred pounds. It also provides a location and time to meet that evening.
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.’’ 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. She notices him staring at the scarf and pulls it away to reveal an ‘‘almost formless blur of scarlet’’ 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.
They are from Romaine to a man addressed as ‘‘Max,’’ and in the most recent one, she lays out her plan to lie about Vole’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, when Romaine says she was waiting at home for her husband at 10 ., she was actually 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 10 . on the night of the murder thanks to an employee at the theater, who recognizes her 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 Vole 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. Janet Mackenzie takes the stand first, offering what she knows about the relationship between Miss French and Leonard Vole. 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 Vole as that man.
Then Romaine Heilger takes the stand and presents her account of the night of the murder: Vole had left that evening with a crowbar, returned home late with blood on his shirt and confessed to the killing, then burned his clothes in the stove and threatened Romaine to keep her quiet about it. The counsel for the defense begins his cross-examination by accusing the woman of making up the entire story, which she denies. Then he produces the fateful love letter, which reveals Romaine’s plan to get Vole convicted despite his innocence. The woman breaks down on the stand and confesses that she made the story up, and that Vole returned home at 9:20, just as he said. Vole confirms this with his own testimony. The case is turned over to the jury, who quickly return with a verdict of ‘‘not guilty.’’
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 Heilger all along. She was an actress, capable of changing her voice and personality, and skilled enough at applying makeup to fake a quickly revealed disfigurement in a poorly lit room. However, she could not hide the unconscious habit she had with her hands.
Mayherne encounters Heilger 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 his innocence. As Mayherne himself had implied, the testimony of a devoted wife is not as compelling as a reluctant alibi taken from a woman who hates the man on trial. It was all an act, of course, inspired by her love for Vole and her dedication to securing his freedom—there was no ‘‘Max’’ at all. Mayherne insists that he could have obtained Vole’s acquittal without her antics, but Heigler insists that she could not rely upon Mayherne to prove Vole’s innocence—especially because she knew all along that he was actually guilty.
The Author’s Expanded Ending for the Stage Adaptation
To readers who are familiar with Christie’s 1953 stage adaptation of the story, the ending above may seem incomplete. When the author adapted the story as a play, she decided to expand the ending based on the particular needs of stage drama and on her own dissatisfaction with the ending after twenty-eight years of reflection. According to Ira Levin in his Introduction to The Mousetrap and Other Plays (1978), ‘‘Other playwrights had adapted some of her novels to the stage; they had erred, she felt, in following the books too closely The amount of material added or changed at the end is small, but significant. In the play, Romaine reveals her plot to secure Vole’s freedom immediately after he is acquitted, rather than at some unspecified time after the trial. In addition, Mayherne—who has essentially been replaced by the character of Sir Wilfrid Robarts, the defendant’s actual trial lawyer—does not guess Romaine’s deception before she reveals it. Most significantly, however, the story features an additional twist following Romaine’s statement that her husband is actually guilty of murder. While still immersed in the chaos of the courtroom, a young woman approaches Vole and describes herself as his ‘‘girl.’’ Thrilled that he has been acquitted, she talks of their future, traveling abroad together. When Romaine confronts Vole about the girl, he admits to having an affair, noting cruelly that the girl is fifteen years younger than Romaine. Vole then warns Romaine that he cannot be prosecuted again for murder, but she can be charged with being an accessory—so she should just keep quiet about the whole plot. Enraged, Romaine grabs a knife, which is lying on a table in the courtroom labeled as a piece of evidence, and stabs Vole dead.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Agatha Christie, Published by Gale Group, 2010