From The Witness for the Prosecution and Other Stories
In the realm of mystery writing and detective fiction, no one ranks higher than Agatha Christie. The author, under her own name, of eighty genre books featuring such iconic characters as Hercule Poirot, Miss Marple, and the duo of Tommy and Tuppence Beresford, she was also the author of thirty plays, a volume of autobiography, and a series of non-genre books written under a pseudonym. Her work has been published in more languages than that of any other author, and has sold more worldwide than anything besides the Bible and the works of Shakespeare.
All this despite the fact that she is, on points, an atrocious writer. Her style is flat and often cloying, with a fondness for exposition and the overuse of adverbs. “ ‘I can’t help that,’ said Vole earnestly” is one example of a sentence that uses a thudding adverb to point out how the dialogue is delivered rather than allowing the reader to come to this conclusion on her own. In a story of just under thirty pages, characters can also be seen saying things “eagerly,” “hastily,” “cheerfully,” “sharply,” “coldly,” “softly,” “quietly,” “hopelessly,” “gravely,” “sternly,” “dubiously,” and “in a wheezy voice.” Characters snarl their dialogue rather than saying it, they wheeze and whine and acquiesce. All of this is testament to an author who is not in control of her materials and does not trust her reader to comprehend meaning in the absence of glaring authorial signposts.
None of which, it should be clear, has anything to do with Christie’s monumental success and enormous readership. Her work is less interesting for its technique than for the ingenious puzzles she concocted and the thrill of trying to stay one step ahead of her criminals and the detectives on their trails.
The examples above are all pulled from the classic 1925 story “The Witness for the Prosecution,” a standalone tale that was the basis for a play, scripted by Christie herself, and a feature film starring Charles Laughton, Marlene Dietrich, and Tyrone Power and directed by Billy Wilder. The story, originally published in Flynn’s Weekly under the title “Traitor’s Hands,” is arguably the least successful of all its various incarnations (with Wilder’s film being the clear champion). It is curious for its mode – it’s a courtroom drama, an outlier in the work of a writer better known for locked-room mysteries – and the ways in which it differs from Christie’s play, which she adapted in 1953. The author changed the name of one character for the stage and altered the ending, feeling that the “theatre needed something more visually dramatic and violent” than what is on offer in the story.
In whatever version one prefers, the basic trajectory of the plot remains the same. The redoubtable solicitor Mr. Mayherne agrees to take the case of Leonard Vole, who has been accused of murdering an elderly spinster called Emily French. The motive, according to the prosecution, is money. Vole is accused of worming his way into Miss French’s good graces and inducing her to alter her will, making him the primary beneficiary of her fortune. The title character, Romaine, is an actor who is introduced as Vole’s wife and who will testify in court that he arrived home a full hour after he said he did, eradicating his alibi and, if true, providing him ample opportunity to have committed the crime.
“The Witness for the Prosecution” is one of Christie’s great bait-and-switch stories, so it’s probably wise not to go into too much more detail regarding the plot. (The story is well known, though the twist is less of a cultural touchstone than the twists at the end of, say, Murder on the Orient Express or – the metafictional granddaddy of them all – The Murder of Roger Ackroyd.) Outside of the story’s resolution, the core attractions are the title character, whose icy demeanour is well handled in a short space, and Mr. Mayherne himself.
Christie has a habit of drawing characters based on certain tics or mannerisms – one thinks of M. Poirot twirling his moustaches while working his little grey cells over a particularly bedevilling problem. The solicitor’s habit is adjusting his pince-nez, a gesture that conveys everything from deep thought to doubt to frustration. He is introduced in typically expository passage: “Mr. Mayherne was a small man precise in manner, neatly, not to say foppishly, dressed, with a pair of very shrewd and piercing grey eyes. By no means a fool. Indeed, as a solicitor, Mr. Mayherne’s reputation stood very high. His voice, when he spoke to his client. was dry but not unsympathetic.” (Is it really necessary to clarify the sound of his voice “when he spoke”?) One reason for the superiority of the stage production is that all this kind of thing is relegated to stage directions, leaving the audience to parse the meaning from the action onstage.
Which is not to say that there is nothing of interest in the third-person narrative of the story. Passages such as the following, from the solicitor’s close point of view, are quintessential Christie and work to draw the reader in while also potentially obfuscating certain key points that will prove essential to the resolution:
Though he had no intention of saying so, his belief in Leonard Vole’s innocence was at that moment strengthened. He knew something of the mentality of elderly ladies. He saw Miss French, infatuated with the good-looking young man, hunting about for pretexts that should bring him to the house. What more likely than that she should plead ignorance of business, and beg him to help her with her money affairs? She was enough of a woman of the world to realize that any man is slightly flattered by such an admission of his superiority. Leonard Vole had been flattered.
The other reason the stage play and film versions are superior is that they constitute courtroom dramas, whereas the actual trial in the story is confined to the final third and is more or less raced through, again with exposition standing in for dramatic action. But the twisty plot still retains the capacity to surprise and the story, while ultimately more interesting as a nascent germ of its later form, is one of the more memorable in Christie’s short fiction output.
Scottish writer Val McDermid will be talking about the importance of Christie to the mystery genre at the Motive Crime & Mystery Festival in Toronto on June 4 at 1:00 p.m.