THE CONTINENTAL AFFAIR, by Christine Mangan
“Where large sums of money are concerned,” Agatha Christie once wisely observed, “it is advisable to trust nobody.” She also famously said, “Time is the best killer,” though the slippery slow burn of Christine Mangan’s “The Continental Affair” — which makes more than one pointed allusion to the dame’s oeuvre — might be better described as an elegant killer of time.
Mangan’s third novel is an odd, languorous piece of work: ostensibly a Hitchcockian thriller and teasingly, tangentially a love story, steeped in the fitful melancholy and low-grade paranoia of postwar Europe and North Africa. What it all adds up to is something more than glossy international intrigue but less, perhaps, than a full-fledged affair.
Thirty-something Henri was a police officer in Algeria until political upheaval and personal loss led him to seek out his late mother’s homeland in Spain, where he finds desultory work as a low-level bagman for an extended network of blithely criminal cousins. He’s there but not there, a wraith in neatly pressed suits who wakes up every day waiting “for the forgetting to begin.”
Louise is a London spinster of 28 (or so it goes in the early 1960s), tall and blond but not quite beautiful. Hamstrung by caring for her ailing father and chafing at the confines of a dull, featureless life, she longs for the unchecked freedoms that the feckless characters inside her favorite books seem to take for granted: brass rings and other things the Becky Sharps of the world never hesitate to grab. And so she borrows the name of another scheming literary heroine — Virginie Varens, from an obscure Louisa May Alcott novella — and promptly spends the first chunk of her modest inheritance on a journey to Alhambra, the 13th-century Spanish fortress famed for its red-earthed arches and verdant symmetry.
Fate convenes our two friendless protagonists one morning in the walled gardens there, where Henri has been sent to collect a £5,000 packet of cash for delivery. While he looks on unseen from a balcony, Louise simply scoops up the money and walks away. Why doesn’t he stop her? Henri can’t quite conjure a reason; his cousins aren’t the forgiving kind, and there is no question there will be consequences. Ambivalent but intrigued, he finds himself following her lead, and the pair sets off on a sort of cagey border-crossing pas de deux.
As the unhurried action, such that it is, wanders from Granada to Paris, Belgrade to Oran, secondary characters come and go — a shadowy bounty hunter, a blowzy French barmaid, a kindhearted English heiress. There are endless glasses of cognac and solitary meals in cafes; even a scattering of faceless lovers who melt away in the morning, unmissed.
But the core of the story belongs to these two profoundly lonely people, slowly circling each other as they form some kind of nebulous alliance that neither of them seems to fully understand, or maybe they don’t want to. Mangan (“Tangerine”) is a lush, painterly creator of noir atmosphere who largely ignores the urgency and intricacy of conventional genre plotting: Her prose lives in the sensual pleasure of a pastry, the sun-baked scent of cypress and diesel and orange blossoms, the wafting smoke of a Gauloise. The result is a collection of lovely, haunted images that never fully coalesces into compelling narrative. Midway through, one cheerfully oblivious character tries to sell a reluctant Louise on the joys of Agatha: “And another reason why you’ll love Christie: She’ll take you everywhere without ever having to leave.”
As a travelogue and a mood piece, “The Continental Affair” is undeniably beguiling and transportive; as a mystery, it drifts.
Leah Greenblatt is a freelance writer and former critic at large at Entertainment Weekly.
THE CONTINENTAL AFFAIR | By Christine Mangan | 306 pp. | Flatiron | $27.99