Emily French is a wealthy, elderly woman who, despite her riches, lives and dresses simply enough that a stranger might mistake her for a poor person. She develops a relationship with Leonard Vole, who begins visiting her at her home in Cricklewood. He assists her with some financial investments, and she subsequently changes her will to make Vole the main beneficiary when she dies. According to later statements by her housekeeper, Janet Mackenzie, French believed that Vole was single, and she had formed a romantic attachment to him. She changed the will because she thought the two were going to be married. Before the story begins, French is murdered by a blow from a crowbar.
Romaine Heilger is Leonard Vole’s mistress, who lives as his wife. She is described as a tall, pale woman with high cheekbones and a distinctly foreign look. An Austrian who was once an actress, Romaine has a husband who is reportedly confined in an Austrian madhouse, which prevents her from obtaining a divorce and marrying Vole. When she discovers that Vole’s alibi depends solely upon her testimony—and that such testimony might not sway the jury— she claims to hate Vole and vows to testify that he did commit the murder. This she does, but the counsel for the defense discredits her on the witness stand by producing letters written by Romaine to another man; the last of these letters confirms Vole’s innocence. Vole is acquitted, and later, Romaine admits to Mayherne that her plan was to appear to be a witness for the prosecution, so that when she was finally forced to confirm Vole’s alibi, the jury would lend it more credence. To accomplish this, she not only pretends to hate Vole, but also disguises herself as Mrs. Mogson and presents fake love letters to Mayherne—evidence that the lawyer uses to discredit Romaine’s ‘‘false’’ testimony for the prosecution. All this she did because of her love for Vole and her desire to keep him out of jail. Romaine also admits that the discredited testimony she gave against Vole was true on at least one point: he was indeed guilty of the murder.
Janet Mackenzie is the maid of Miss Emily French, the wealthy widow that Leonard Vole is accused of killing. According to Mayherne, Mackenzie seems to hate Vole. He contends that Vole was pretending to have a romantic interest in Miss French so that the woman would change her will to include him as a beneficiary. Mackenzie knows about Vole mainly through personal conversations with her murdered employer, so much of her testimony is unsubstantiated. However, Mackenzie testifies that on the night of the murder, she returned to Miss French’s residence at approximately nine thirty, and heard her employer speaking to a man. Vole’s alibi—or lack of alibi—for this time period becomes the most important element in his defense. During the trial, the trial lawyer for the defense is able to get Mackenzie to contradict herself slightly during her testimony, though the main evidence she presents is largely unshaken.
Mr. Mayherne is the lawyer responsible for defending Leonard Vole in his trial for the murder of Miss Emily French. He is described as ‘‘a small man, precise in manner, neatly, not to say foppishly dressed, with a pair of very shrewd and piercing grayeyes.’’He has a habit of absent-mindedly taking off his glasses and cleaning them. When he first meets Vole, Mayherne asks many probing questions of his client in an attempt to establish what his motives were in spending time with the elderly Miss French. Mayherne even asks his client if he committed the murder, aware that the facts of the case will help determine the strategy he employs in Vole’s defense. When he becomes convinced of Vole’s innocence, Vole’s wife—who turns out not to be married to Vole at all—claims that she can testify to his guilt. Mayherne believes that her story is false and dedicates himself to disproving her testimony. After receiving a note that offers assistance with the case, Mayherne meets with Mrs. Mogson, who sells him a batch of love letters in which Romaine admits Vole is innocent. Mayherne uses these to sway the jury in favor of acquittal, though Mayherne is still puzzled by Romaine’s attempt to frame her husband. Upon later reflection, Mayherne realizes that both Mrs. Mogson and Romaine exhibited the same unconscious habit of clenching and unclenching their fists. This leads him to the suspicion that Mrs. Mogson was actually Romaine in disguise, and that the whole endeavor was intended not to frame Vole but to provide a compelling defense. And even though Mayherne is convinced of Vole’s innocence, he ultimately finds out from Romaine that the man was guilty of Miss French’s murder.
Mrs. Mogson is a vulgar, middle-aged woman who lives in an unkempt room in ‘‘a ramshackle building in an evil-smelling slum,’’ a place known as Shaw’s Rents. She wears a scarf that hides a face disfigured by acid, which she says was thrown on her by a former lover who left her to be with Romaine Heilger. For this reason, Mrs. Mogson sets out to destroy Romaine by revealing her affair with another man and her attempt to get Vole convicted of murder even though he did not kill anyone. In the end, Mayherne discovers that Mrs. Mogson is actually Romaine Heigler in disguise; the accomplished actress fooled him into thinking she was someone else, using makeup and dim lighting to fake her disfigurement.
Leonard Vole is a thirty-three-year-old man accused of murder. The victim is an elderly woman with whom he had been spending a great deal of time. Although he maintains that their relationship was more like a mother and her adopted son, others contend that the murdered woman thought their relationship was a romance, and that the two would probably marry soon. Vole already has a wife named Romaine. He also has severe financial troubles that would provide motive for killing the wealthy woman after convincing her to include him as a beneficiary in her will. Vole contends that his wife will provide an alibi for the night of the murder, but when his lawyer questions her, she states that she will testify that Vole—who is not legally her husband—is guilty. Vole seems unable to explain this betrayal by his wife and still insists that the two are in love. In the end, Romaine contradicts her previous testimony and admits that Vole was home at the time of the murder. After he is acquitted, Romaine reveals to his lawyer that he did indeed commit the murder.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Agatha Christie, Published by Gale Group, 2010