THE MYSTERY OF MRS. CHRISTIE by Marie Benedict, narrated by Nicola Barber

This volume gripped me from beginning to end, enhanced greatly by narrator Nicola Barber.

We learn about the meeting between Miss Agatha Miller and Subaltern Archibald Christie at a ball in 1912, when she was 22 and he was 23. Of course, Miss Miller, being upper-crust and a member of Torquay society is already engaged, to safe & reliable Reggie. But she doesn’t feel anything for Reggie (a friend since childhood) other than a rather pallid affection. It doesn’t help that Reggie is the perfect gentleman, and never puts a foot wrong.

Archibald Christie, on the other hand, is always violating what is proper. He bluntly tells Agatha how attracted he is to her at their first meeting. He ensures that the band is playing something jazzy, modern and not-quite-proper as they take their first turn on the floor. And later (about a month later) he blurts out that he has to have her and they should marry immediately. His sexuality is raw and unfiltered by any gentlemanly concerns.

Needless to say, Miss Miller’s family is not impressed, and Mummy ensures her daughter’s ears are filled with dire predictions. She is followed in this opinion by her eldest daughter Madge, ten years older than Agatha, whose sarcastic pronouncements have the inevitable effect of making younger sister Agatha bristle.

Archie is SO FASCINATING. He’s an enigma. He’s not quite proper. He’s definitely NOT suitable as he’s an impoverished subaltern, unable to support his wife-to-be in a fashion that her family desires.

So she marries him, against the wishes of both her family and his.

Everything would have gone swimmingly, since these two young people are genuinely in love, but for the First World War. Like millions of women, Agatha has to cope with the husband who returns to her in 1919 being a broken version of the man she married in 1914. Archie has PTSD, has acquired a smoking habit, a drinking habit, and a bottomless pit of rage. He is enraged when his wife announces she is expecting a baby.

Author Marie  Benedict does a wonderful job of depicting the mores of 1910s and 1920s England, when well-bred young women were encouraged to deny their own feelings and sacrifice their time and other relationships to making sure that The Husband is paramount, that his needs & wishes are the intense focus of their lives.

Of course, such behavior ensures that a pleasant young man, with mild mental health issues, becomes a monster of entitlement, fueled by his experiences of a horrifying war. Agatha tries and tries to please her husband, submerging her natural exuberance in the service of meeting his needs. But the more she tries, the more enraged he becomes.

One day, he announces that he wants a divorce. Of course the reason is because he has met someone else. Agatha is devastated, especially as this bombshell occurs on the heels of the death of her beloved mother. She becomes angry. She suddenly acquires a spine. They have a dreadful row, because Agatha decides NOT to give her husband the easy divorce he wants. No, no no. If HE wants a divorce, she demands that he names the other woman, Nancy Neele, as an adulteress.

Naturally Archie is enraged. He cannot believe his doormat of a wife has suddenly become demanding. He stomps out of the house, and Agatha Christie (who by now has written THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES and THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD) stages her own disappearance, in the knowledge that the police investigation will uncover husband Archie’s infidelity, so that the Whole World (including daughter Rosalind) will know that her mother tried everything to save the marriage, and that it is her father’s fault that it ended.

The staged disappearance involves lots of blackmail and lies (including the lie that Agatha Christie was in a fugue state) but Archibald Christie has no choice but to go along with this. If he doesn’t, Agatha will use the novelist’s lethal weapon, a fictionalized account of what happened, which is plausible enough to be believed by everyone. The manuscript (which Archie has read) will blacken his reputation FOREVER.

How delicious to see the comeuppance of this entitled child-bully of a man! Five stars.