“An Eye for an Eye” by Jeffrey Archer Summary & Ending Meaning

"An Eye for an Eye" by Jeffrey Archer Summary
“An Eye for an Eye” Summary

“An Eye for an Eye” is a short story from Jeffrey Archer‘s 1994 collection Twelve Red Herrings. It’s about a woman who’s been charged with the murder of her husband who maintains her innocence and claims she was physically incapable of committing the crime. Her lawyer isn’t sure this is the best line of defense, so he tests her story to be sure it will hold up. After the summary, we’ll look at the meaning of the ending. Here’s a summary of “An Eye for an Eye”.

“An Eye for an Eye” Summary

Sir Matthew Roberts, a lawyer, leans back in his chair, thinking about his client, Mary Banks. It’s a simple murder case. He believes he can get the charge reduced to manslaughter and possibly get an acquittal due to the treatment she endured from her husband, the deceased Bruce Banks.

Unfortunately, Mary Banks wants to plead not guilty. She claims she couldn’t possibly have committed the crime and cover-up which involved an axe because, at the time, she was a patient in the local hospital as well as blind.

Sir Matthew’s clerk brings two men into the office—Bernard Casson, an old school and keen-minded lawyer, and Hugh Witherington, junior counsel on the case and all round below average lawyer. The men are seated and pleasantries are exchanged. Sir Matthew acknowledges the challenge of Mr. Casson’s case.

Casson takes out the file and says Mary Banks is still adamantly pleading her innocence. She had been blinded by her husband a few days before his death and was registered at the hospital at the time. Sir Matthew points out the time-of-death estimate is vague and would have allowed her to be at the scene before she went to the hospital. Casson agrees and has informed Mrs. Banks, but she’s confident the jury will believe her and in Sir Matthew’s defense skills. They will meet face to face and have a chance to change each other’s minds.

Sir Matthew opens the file and goes on the offensive. He points out Mrs. Bank’s blood was found on the dead man’s shirt, that a hair of hers was stuck in the axe handle, and her fingerprints were all over the shovel used to dig the grave. No one visited the farm, so they have no witnesses to call in support. Hugh Witherington makes a comment in favor of Mrs. Banks’s story that Sir Matthew lets go. He has plans for Witherington.

Casson says they have an explanation for all those things. Sir Matthews questions whether the jury will believe it with Mr. Banks’s history of violence and the fact that Mrs. Banks was often seen in the village with a variety of injuries. Mrs. Banks claims the injuries were sustained working on the farm.

Further, Mrs. Banks conveniently claims she was blinded when her husband struck her in the face with a frying pan. Casson responds that the scar is still visible and the doctor is convinced she was blinded.

Finally, the autopsy found extremely high levels of strychnine in the deceased’s blood. It’s been confirmed Mrs. Banks bought strychnine shortly before. Casson contends the levels can be disputed and the strychnine was for a rat problem.

“An Eye for an Eye” Summary, Cont’d

Sir Matthew bluntly states he doesn’t believe Mary Banks. Casson questions what they can do about it; their job is to defend their client. Sir Matthews still hopes to convince her to plead guilty to manslaughter. The jury would surely be sympathetic to her situation. A women’s group would picket the courthouse, making the judge want to be as lenient as possible to avoid looking chauvinistic. He’d have her out of prison in weeks.

Casson doesn’t know how they can convince her to change her position. Sir Matthew says he and Hugh Witherington have a plan, but doesn’t expand on the thought.

They make arrangements to meet with Mary Banks at eleven on Monday morning. Sir Matthew looks forward to making the acquaintance of a woman of her guts and imagination.

At the appointed time, they gather in the interview room at Holloway prison. Mary Banks, frail and gray-haired, is only thirty-seven but looks much older.

Casson sits directly across from her at the table. Sir Matthew and Witherington sit on each side of Casson. Casson introduces Sir Matthew, who’ll serve as her defense counsel. Sir Matthew extends his hand in greeting, but Mary Banks doesn’t react to it and still looks at Casson. She’s glad he will be representing her.

Casson explains that Sir Matthew is going to assume the role of the opposition and ask her some hard questions. She’s confident a lawyer of his abilities will have no trouble proving her inability to commit this crime.

Sir Matthew starts his questioning and Mary answers. Her husband was poisoned; she was in the hospital at the time.

He asks about her blindness; her husband struck her with a frying pan and she was knocked unconscious. The postman found her and drove her to the hospital.

After two weeks in the hospital, she asked the vicar to check in on Bruce. She wasn’t surprised he didn’t visit. He probably didn’t care if she came back or not.

Meanwhile, Sir Matthew edges his coffee cup closer to the edge. He pushes it off, watching Mary intently. She’s startled by the crash but doesn’t look in its direction. Sir Matthew picks up the broken pieces and places them on the table.

“An Eye for an Eye” Summary, Cont’d

Sir Matthew continues his questioning. Her hair was on the axe handle; she had used it that morning to chop wood for breakfast. There were no fingerprints on it; it’s cold at five in the morning, so she was wearing gloves. Her blood was on his shirt collar; her blood is on many things in the house. Her fingerprints were on the shovel; she used it every day the previous week.

Sir Matthew asks why she bought such a large quantity of strychnine and why she went all the way to Reading for it. Mary shops in Reading every Thursday. There isn’t an agricultural supplier any closer.

Sir Matthew gets up and slowly walks behind Mary Banks. It’s exactly 11:17 and the timing will be critical. She hasn’t explained why she needed so much poison. Mary says Bruce told her to buy a large quantity to finish off the rats for good. She also feared for the safety of her son, Rupert, who was due back from school for the weekend.

Sir Matthew is silent a moment, knowing it will happen any second. The door on the far side of the room opens and Rupert, about nine years old, enters and walks directly in front of his mother. He stops and smiles at her. She doesn’t respond at all. He waits ten seconds then leaves. Mary asks about the door opening, but Sir Matthew says only he and Casson are in the room. Witherington stays silent.

Sir Matthew circles behind Mrs. Banks for the last time. He’s almost at the point of believing her. He nods to Witherington, who places his silk handkerchief on the table. Mary doesn’t react. He bows his head slightly, puts his right hand over his left eye, plucks it out of the socket and places it on the handkerchief. He leaves it there for thirty seconds then starts polishing it.

Sir Matthew walks back to the front of the table and sits down. He sees beads of perspiration on Mary’s forehead. Witherington looks directly at her as he puts his eye back in. Mary briefly turns away and tries to compose herself, but it’s too late.

Sir Matthew smiles at her and she smiles back. He would be much more confident with a plea of guilty to manslaughter.

(End of “An Eye for an Eye” summary)

“An Eye for an Eye” Ending Explained

The stunt planned by Sir Matthews and carried out by Witherington—removing his eye at the table, polishing it, and putting it back in—reveals that Mary Banks can, in fact, see. She was able to remain stoic and in character in the face of the other tests, but not this one. She perspired and briefly looked away, indicating she was affected by what she was seeing.

Revealing that Mary could see was Sir Matthews’ whole purpose because he didn’t believe her story of being innocent. A large part of her defense rests on being blind, which would make it impossible for her to carry out the crime and cover-up.

The “cleverness” of the ending, outside of it just being a neat way of breaking someone’s composure, is in the title. Mary and Sir Matthew are engaging in a battle of eyes. She uses hers as a defense, claiming blindness. Sir Matthew uses Witherington’s false eye as an attack, using it to destroy her cover. This is the sense in which there’s an eye for an eye.

I think some confusion might arise around the ending because readers wonder if there’s some additional layer of cleverness that they’ve missed. I understand this because the ending does feel a bit incomplete. I think this is because the successful ruse comes out of nowhere; it doesn’t feel connected to anything earlier in the story. The only preparation we’re given is that there’s some plan involving Witherington. A reader could feel a bit unsatisfied that the ending doesn’t link up with something significant from earlier, unless I’m missing that something.

I hope this “An Eye for an Eye” summary and look at the ending was helpful.