The story is based on a real-life scandal involving the wife of the headmaster of a school in Kuala Lumpur who was convicted in a murder trial after shooting dead a male friend in April 1911. She was eventually pardoned.
In the play, the action takes place in the house of a plantation owner, Robert Crosbie, and his wife Leslie in the then-British colony of Malaya, and later in the Chinese quarter of Singapore. With the husband away on business, the wife claims that she shot the mutual friend, Geoff Hammond, in self-defence, following an attempted rape, and the play focuses on the steps taken by the wife's lawyer to convince the court of her innocence, following the discovery of an incriminating letter. The letter was an invention of Maugham's for dramatic effect.