Witness For The Prosecution by Agatha Christie, 1925
The magic trick:
Fooling the reader by unfolding the narrative in a linear fashion
We start a week of Agatha Christie stories. How could we do a month of mysteries without highlighting the No. 1 master?
Today we begin not with Miss Marple or Poirot. No, instead, we feature a one-off standalone. But wow, it’s an all-timer.
What it lacks in charm – there is something special about the creature comforts afforded by a recurring detective – is more than made up for by plot wizardry. I mean, really, this is a masterpiece of plotting.
It unfolds in a very linear fashion. A defense attorney is sorting through the facts of a murder so he can determine how to best serve his client. Remember this is a mystery, though. The narrative may seem like a straight line, but it’s not a straight line. Not at all. And that’s quite a trick on Christie’s part.
“Now, my dear Mrs. Vole,” he began, “you must not give way—”
He stopped. It was so very obvious that Romaine Vole had not the slightest intention of giving way. She was perfectly calm and composed.
“Will you please tell me about it?” she said. “I must know everything. Do not think to spare me. I want to know the worst.” She hesitated, then repeated in a lower tone, with a curious emphasis which the lawyer did not understand: “I want to know the worst.”
Mr. Mayherne went over his interview with Leonard Vole. She listened attentively, nodding her head now and then.
“I see,” she said, when he had finished. “He wants me to say that he came in at twenty minutes past nine that night?”
“He did come in at that time?” said Mr. Mayherne sharply.
“That is not the point,” she said coldly. “Will my saying so acquit him? Will they believe me?”
Mr. Mayherne was taken aback. She had gone so quickly to the core of the matter.
“That is what I want to know,” she said. “Will it be enough? Is there anyone else who can support my evidence?”
There was a suppressed eagerness in her manner that made him vaguely uneasy.
“So far there is no one else,” he said reluctantly.
“I see,” said Romaine Vole.
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