Deception is the key element in the interactions between nearly every major character in the story. From the start, Vole lies to Mayherne about being guilty of the crime; he only acknowledges pieces of the truth when confronted by witnesses or hard evidence to the contrary. For his part, Mayherne tells Vole that he will use different strategies for the man’s defense depending upon whether or not Vole actually did it—in effect revealing his willingness to deceive the jury as part of his duty to defend Vole. Mayherne even asks if one of Vole’s friends would alter his recollection of when a certain conversation occurred, in a way that would be beneficial to Vole’s defense.
However, the master of deception in the tale is Vole’s partner Romaine. It is important to note that she does not begin her deception until she learns from Mayherne that her testimony, confirming her husband’s whereabouts at the time of the murder, might not be enough to keep him from being convicted. At that moment, she decides to ‘‘play a lone hand,’’ in which no one else is aware of her deception. She deceives Mayherne and the jurors into thinking that she actually hates Vole and comes forward with testimony confirming his guilt. She also deceives Mayherne by disguising herself and offering evidence to disprove her own court testimony. Finally, her greatest deception is revealed: she knew all along that her husband was guilty of the crime, and her original ‘‘deceptive’’ and recanted testimony was actually true. The only presumably honest person in the tale is the murdered woman’s maid, Janet Mackenzie, who is never shown directly.
Perception and Prejudice
An important part of ‘‘The Witness for the Prosecution’’ is its examination of how prejudice can affect human perception. Mayherne knows this, since his job is to determine how jurors will react to the various circumstances of Vole’s case. For example, he knows that a thirty-three-year-old man spending time with a woman forty years older than he will appear suspicious to jurors unless Mayherne can establish that Vole’s motive was purely charitable. Mayherne also knows that jurors will be more suspicious of a wife’s confirmation of her husband’s alibi than the testimony of an unbiased witness, because a wife is expected to stand by her man under any circumstances. Taken as a whole, the facts of the case align all too well with the typical person’s prejudices regarding younger men taking advantage of older, wealthy women. In defending Vole, Mayherne looks for a way to defuse those prejudices against his client.
However, Mayherne himself suffers from limited perception based on his own prejudices. When he meets Romaine, he assumes her to be a vindictive woman and rules out any chance of her being helpful to her husband’s case. This prevents Mayherne from seeing Romaine’s true plan, where a more suspicious person might have picked up on it upon meeting ‘‘Mrs. Mogson.’’ Mayherne is also prejudiced in his belief of his client’s innocence; once he makes this early judgment, he does not truly consider the possibility that Vole is actually a murderer, even though he later learns that this is the truth. Like Mayherne, Romaine understands the probable prejudices of the jurors and devises a plan that takes advantage of those assumptions.
Sara Constantakis – Short Stories for Students – Presenting Analysis, Context & Criticism on Commonly Studied Short Stories, vol. 31, Agatha Christie, Published by Gale Group, 2010