The Witness for the Prosecution is a famous short story and play by Agatha Christie. The story was initially published as Traitor Hands in Flynn's Weekly edition of 31 January 1925. In 1933, the story was published for the first time in the collection The Hound of Death and Other Stories that appeared only in the United Kingdom. The American audience had to wait until 1948 when it was included in the collection The Witness for the Prosecution and Other Stories.
A solicitor, Mr. Mayherne, interviews his latest client in his office: Leonard Vole is a young man who has been arrested on the capital charge of the murder of an old lady, Miss Emily French. Vole tells how he met Miss French when he helped her to pick up some parcels she dropped in Oxford Street and, by coincidence, he met her again that night at a party in Cricklewood. She asked him to call at her house and he was ribbed by his friends who joked that he had made a conquest of a lonely and wealthy old lady.
He did call and struck up a friendship with Miss French and started to see her on many other occasions at a time when he himself was in low water financially. Vole's story is that Miss French asked him for financial advice despite the testimony of both her maid, Janet Mackenzie, and Miss French's bankers that the old lady was astute enough herself on these matters. He protests that he never swindled her of a single penny and, if he had been, surely her death would have frustrated his plans? Vole is then staggered when Mayherne tells him that he is the principal beneficiary of Miss French's will and that Janet Mackenzie swears that her mistress told her that Vole was informed of this change in his fortunes.
The facts of the murder are that Janet McKenzie, on her night off, returned to Miss French's house briefly at half-past-nine and heard voices in the sitting-room. One was Miss French and the other was a man's. The next morning, the body of Miss French was found, killed by a crowbar with several items taken from the house. Burglary was at first suspected but Miss Mackenzie's suspicions of Vole pointed the police in his direction and led eventually to his arrest. Vole though is delighted to hear of Miss Mackenzie's testimony about the visitor at nine-thirty as he was with his wife, Romaine, at the time and she can provide him with an alibi.
Mayherne has already wired Mrs Vole to return from a trip to Scotland to see him and he goes to her house to interview her. He is surprised to find that she is foreign and is staggered when she cries out her hatred of Vole and that he is not her husband – she was an actress in Vienna and her real husband is still living there but in an asylum. She alleges that Vole returned from Miss French's an hour later than he claims and, not being her lawful husband, she can testify against him in court.
Romaine Heilger does indeed appear as a witness for the prosecution at the committal hearing and Vole is sent for trial. In the intervening period, Mayherne tries to find evidence that will discredit Romaine but he is unsuccessful until he receives a scrawled and badly-spelt letter which directs him to call at an address in Stepney and ask for Miss Mogson if he wants evidence against the "painted foreign hussy". He does so and in a reeking tenement slum meets a bent middle-aged crone of a woman with terrible scars on her face caused by the throwing of sulfuric acid. This attack was carried out by a man by the name of Max who Romaine Heilger is now having an affair with. Miss Mogson herself was involved with Max herself many years before but Romaine took him away from her. Meyherne is passed a series of letters written by Romaine to Max, all dated, which prove that Vole is innocent and that Romaine is lying to be rid of him. Mayherne pays the crone twenty pounds for the letters which are then read out at the trial. The case against Vole collapses and he is declared "Not Guilty". Mayherne is delighted at his success but is suddenly stopped in his tracks when he remembers a curious habit of Romaine's in the witness box when she clenched and unclenched her right hand – a habit shared by Miss Mogson in Stepney.
Some time later he confronts Romaine with the accusation that she, a former actress, was Miss Mogson and that the letters were fakes. Romaine confesses: she loves Vole passionately and knew that her evidence would not have been enough to save him – she had to provoke an emotional reaction in the court in favour of the accused man. Mayherne is unhappy, protesting that he could have saved the innocent man by more conventional means but Romaine tells him she couldn't have risked it. Mayherne presumes she means that was because she knew Vole was innocent; however the story ends with Romaine telling the lawyer that she couldn't risk it because Vole was actually guilty all along. She is willing to go to gaol for perjury, but Vole is free.
The original story ended abruptly with the major twist, Mrs. Vole's revelation that her husband was indeed guilty. Over time, Agatha Christie grew dissatisfied with this ending (one of the few Christie endings in which a murderer escapes punishment), and, in her subsequent rewriting of the story as a play, added a mistress for Leonard, who appears at the end of the play. The mistress and Leonard are about to leave Romaine (called "Christine" in the stage, film and television versions) to be arrested for perjury, when Romaine grabs a knife and stabs Leonard dead.
- 1925: Flynn's Weekly, 31 January – as "Traitor Hands"
- 1933: The Hound of Death and Other Stories
- 1948: The Witness for the Prosecution and Other Stories
- 1993: The Mousetrap and Other Plays
- 1953 Witness for the Prosecution
- 2002 Witness for the Prosecution (Russian: Свидетель обвинения)
- 2005 Khara Sangaycha Tar (Marathi)
- 2011 Witness for the Prosecution (Japan)