Of All the Gin Joints

Read British spy writer Charles Cumming's reflection on the movie Casablanca and its influence on his latest novel, The Moroccan Girl, then comment below for a chance to win a copy!

In a culture of prequels and sequels, origin stories and franchise reboots, it seems no box-office hit can be considered safe from the recycling junkies in Hollywood. Psycho, Minority Report, The Karate Kid, Fargo—all have been variously updated and rebranded for the 21st century, with wildly different results. For every Dawn of the Dead there was an A-Team; for every True Grit, a Point Break.

In the midst of all this cultural cannibalism, it’s a relief nobody has dared touch the most iconic love story of them all: Casablanca. Like Citizen Kane or Lawrence of Arabia, perhaps some movies are too precious, too cherished to be remade. Besides, what actor would relish filling the shoes of Humphrey Bogart or Ingrid Bergman? And show me a screenwriter, firing up their laptop on a crisp LA morning, who would be brave (or arrogant) enough to think they could surpass Julius and Philip Epstein’s peerless script?

Casablanca was on my mind as I was writing The Moroccan Girl, my new spy thriller published in the U.S. this week. You might ask what a black-and-white love story from 1942 and a British spy novel set in the present day have in common. Well, Casablanca is recognized as a timeless tale of war and romance, but it is also a spy thriller. Bogart’s Rick Blaine fought against Franco in the Spanish Civil War and ran illegal guns into Ethiopia. In helping Ilsa Lund (the part played by Bergman), he is aiding and abetting Victor Laszlo, a Czech Resistance hero hunted by the Gestapo.

The fusion of the political and the romantic is one of the holy grails of the spy genre. Graham Greene did it brilliantly in The Quiet American; John le Carré pulled off a similar feat with The Constant Gardener. Having loved Casablanca since I was a child, I wanted to draw on some of the themes of this enduring film and pay homage to them in The Moroccan Girl.

Film poster for Casablanca.
Film poster for Casablanca.

Casablanca occupies a unique place in the hearts and minds not only of American audiences but of moviegoers around the world. Why has this always been the case? It can’t just be the box-office clout of Bogart and Bergman or the endlessly quotable one-liners, from “Here’s lookin’ at you, kid,” to “Round up the usual suspects.” Watch the film again and the flashbacks to Paris can seem a little awkward, even cheesy. And it’s striking, to say the least, that a story supposedly set in the largest city in northwest Africa features so few Moroccan characters.

Clearly, something else is at work. The film touches on profound themes of heroism and redemption, of thwarted love and noble sacrifice. It was these that I wanted to tap into when considering my own characters. Bogart’s Rick is an archetype of masculinity: on the surface, he’s tough and resourceful, but underneath, he’s burning with passion and regret. Could some of that rub off on Kit Carradine, a British novelist drawn into the world of espionage while attending a literary conference in Marrakech? At the same time, Ingrid Bergman’s Ilsa is a woman of great complexity: sensual, impassioned, and steadfast. Lara Bartok, the woman with whom Kit falls in love in The Moroccan Girl, deliberately shares these characteristics.

F. Scott Fitzgerald famously observed that there are no second acts in American lives. Perhaps he was right—Casablanca is certainly about the impossibility of second chances. In the famous final scene, Rick puts Ilsa and her war-hero husband on the plane because the cause of defeating fascism is greater than the cause of his own heart. In doing so, he gains a measure of personal redemption but at the price of his own contentment.

Yet, perhaps the abiding memory of Bogart’s most celebrated film is the city itself. As director Michael Curtiz presents it, Casablanca is a hotbed of corruption and double-dealing. Yet the city has also become a byword for glamour, excitement, and intrigue. Who among us, given the chance, would turn down the opportunity to spend an evening in Rick’s Café Americain sipping a Veuve Clicquot served by Carl and listening to Sam playing “As Time Goes By” on the piano?

Scene from the movie Casablanca.
Scene from the movie Casablanca.

So I felt it was important to go to modern-day Casablanca and to see the place for myself. Alas, it saddens me to report that no fictional cinematic city, from Woody Allen’s Manhattan to Graham Greene’s Havana, bears as little resemblance to its real-life counterpart as Casablanca. To go there nowadays is to experience a crowded, traffic-choked industrial conurbation far removed from the mystical, exotic getaway of the cinematic imagination.

That is not to say Casablanca is without charm—the food is good (and cheap), the people are friendly, and there are scarcely any tourists. But if you had to stay there for two or three years—like most of the characters in the film—waiting on the off-chance for a plane to spirit you to the New World, there is every possibility you might go slightly mad.

Cover for The Moroccan Girl by Charles Cumming.
Cover for The Moroccan Girl by Charles Cumming.

Kit’s mission in The Moroccan Girl takes him through Casablanca, where he expects to encounter all of the mystery and romance of the movie. In a deliberate homage to Bogart, he meets an MI6 contact at “Blaine’s,” my fictional version of a famous, popular restaurant in the city where international men and women of questionable virtue and intention drink cocktails and smoke shisha into the small hours of the morning.

In that same restaurant, Kit bumps into a mysterious CIA officer, Sebastian Hulse, who greets him with the words, “Of all the gin joints, Carradine.” I was deliberately nodding to Casablanca because I wanted The Moroccan Girl to feel like a contemporary reworking of the film. Kit finds himself on the trail of Lara Bartok, the estranged girlfriend of Ivan Simakov. Simakov is the figurehead of Resurrection, a global revolutionary movement whose members are being sought by competing intelligence services. Is he a modern-day Victor Laszlo? Is Lara, like Ilsa, a decent woman who finds herself on the wrong side of the law—or will she betray Kit in order to save her own skin?

Certainly in Lara, Kit finds his Ilsa Lund. Forced to choose between his political beliefs and his personal contentment, he alights on a path that brings him dangerously close to the activities of Resurrection. Rick Blaine was forced to confront Nazism; Kit Carradine must decide whether Resurrection’s attacks on prominent right-wing politicians and journalists are justified in the age of Trump or simply terrorism by another name.

I don’t mean directly to compare my novel with one of the greatest films ever made. That would be absurd. But, more than 75 years after its release, Casablanca continues to exert a huge influence on the culture. I was the latest lucky recipient of the legacy of this cinematic masterpiece.

Comment below for a chance to win a copy of The Moroccan Girl by Charles Cumming!

To enter, make sure you’re a registered member of the site and simply leave a comment below.

The Moroccan Girl Comment Sweepstakes: NO PURCHASE NECESSARY TO ENTER OR WIN.  A purchase does not improve your chances of winning.  Sweepstakes open to legal residents of 50 United States, D.C., and Canada (excluding Quebec), who are 18 years or older as of the date of entry.  To enter, complete the “Post a Comment” entry at https://www.criminalelement.com/of-all-the-gin-joints-comment-sweepstakes beginning at 10:00 a.m. Eastern Time (ET) February 19, 2019. Sweepstakes ends at 9:59 a.m. ET February 26, 2019. Void outside the United States and Canada and where prohibited by law. Please see full details and official rules here. Sponsor: Macmillan, 175 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10010.

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  1. Mark Evans

    What a cool piece. The Moroccan Girl sounds like an awesome read – buying now and can’t wait to see how Charles Cummings has woven all the exotic and romantic themes of the movie Casablanca into modern day spying.

  2. Regina Stover

    I love his books and can’t wait to read The Morracan Girl. His writing style is smart, intriguing and interesting. Having been to Casablanca (and totally agreeing with his comments about today’s Casablanca), I’m looking forward to again “seeing” the city through his book.

  3. Annmarie Weeks

    I’ve seen Casablanca just once – a long time ago. After reading this piece, I’m obviously going to have to watch it again before reading this book!

  4. Jen Matthews

    I absolutely adore Casablanca. I can’t wait to dig into The Moroccan Girl to find those references and hints to it! Totally my kind of read.

  5. Rob Haley

    I like the ambiguity of whether Resurrection is more like Baader-Meinhof or Occupy Wall Street. Intrigued…and looking forward to reading it!

  6. Misch Brannock

    Wow….sounds great

  7. Nancy Wolfe

    Casablanca is one of my fave movies! Looking forward to The Moroccan Girl and the references to it. Sounds like a book I can really get into.

  8. Jennifer Terry

    This looks like a great read!

  9. KL Stenger

    I would love to read the book

  10. Susan T.

    I’m probably one of the few people who haven’t seen Casablanca. In my defense I’m more of a reader than a movie watcher! While the movie doesn’t overly interest me, The Moroccan Girl sounds great!

  11. DebP

    Casablanca has been one of my top favorite movies, like, forever. This book would be a perfect fit for me.

  12. susan beamon

    Casablanca for me was one of those late night black and white movies I used to watch when sleep refused to come. Good movie, but I never gave it all those tropes and memes. The book sounds interesting.

  13. Susan Meek

    Oh, this sounds just yummy! Love Casablanca and Morocco, so this sounds just perfect!

  14. Marisa Young

    Interesting article on the influence of Casablanca. Would like to read the book.

  15. Paul Gada

    Had me at British spy.

  16. downeaster

    I watched Casablanca again last summer, on the big screen this time. It was great. Looking forward to reading this book.

  17. kathy Ross

    All the elements of a great story. I can’t wait to read it.

  18. Karen

    This sounds like something I would love to read!

  19. Brad Bonds

    I would enjoy reading this book.

  20. Susan Robinette

    This novel sounds great, and I’d love to win a copy. And Casablanca is a terrific movie – I’ve watched it several times.

  21. Karen H

    Love a good thriller full of adventure!

  22. Natalie Amos

    Sounds good! Can’t wait to read it.

  23. Desmond Warzel

    Count me in, please!

  24. lori byrd

    Love the post and this book sounds really great.

  25. Shirley Evans

    I have not seen Casablanca in many years but love novels of this type, spies, love. The Moroccan Girl sounds like it will fit the bill perfectly.

  26. Margot S.

    Casablanca is one of my very favorite movies! The Moroccan Girl looks like a perfect book for me.

  27. Louis Burklow

    As much as I enjoy Casablanca, I’m wary of any attempts to remake or “revisit” it. This book sounds like an entertaining way to honor the movie without copying it.

  28. Alyssa Weinzapfel

    Loved this article.

  29. John Smith

    Great cover! The book sounds like it would make an atmospheric screen thriller!

  30. Evelyn Lucarelli

    Sounds like a book that I would really enjoy. Appreciate the article very much

  31. Patricia Fultz

    Have read books by Cumming and he is one of the authors on my priority list. The new book sounds intriguing.

  32. Tiffany

    This one looks incredible! Cannot wait to read.

  33. MM

    I’m intrigued! Looking forward to reading it.

  34. Carolyn

    This book sounds very interesting and I’m looking forward to reading it!

  35. Joanne Mielczarski

    This book sounds amazing – can’t wait to read it.

  36. Linda Sprencel

    Having read and thoroughly enjoyed all of his books, know this will be another fantastic read.

  37. nance moore

    Sounds great! I usually find the book better than the movie — when a book is made into a movie — so, although that isn’t exactly the case here, I think I would like this book as well.

  38. Michael Carter

    Casablanca is a film I return to again and again.
    Yes, please enter me in this sweepstakes.

  39. carloshmarlo

    Love Casablanca!! Probably the most romantic movie ever made. Thanks for the chance to win a copy of The Moroccan Girl

  40. Benjamin Ballou

    I cannot wait to sink into another Charles Cumming novel! He always puts the reader right in the middle of the action. Truly one of my favorite authors.

    I feel “The Moroccan Girl” will be no exception. As a huge fan of the inimitable film Casablanca, I cannot wait to see the homages in store to the classic film.

  41. Ali D

    It’s fascinating how you draw on the past to flavor the present. “The Morrocan Girl” sounds like an amazing read!!!

  42. Steve Burt

    Somehow I finagled a copy of “The Man Between”, published in the U.K. last year, and loved it. When “The Moroccan Girl” was advertised here, I ordered an advance copy from B&N and ran right down to pick it up the day it arrived. After reading the first line, I realized it was the exact same book! I confess, I was disappointed not to be reading something new so soon after the last book, but my dilemma immediately turned to coming up with a rationalization for keeping both copies. Maybe I’ll order the e-book as well and call it a “set”.

  43. Jack LesCamela

    I love CASABLANCA, and am looking forward to reading THE MOROCCAN GIRL.

  44. Emma Cazabonne

    oh wow, that sounds fascinating. First of all, there are not many recent novels set in Morroco, plus influenced by the greatest movie of all times! Thanks for this chance to win a copy

  45. M Thompson

    Sound like a fascinating read. Thanks for the giveaway

  46. Karen Terry

    Sounds like winner and a good read.

  47. Ian

    A really nice little read. Made me want to watch the film yet again!

  48. Lara Maynard

    Intrigued. I want to read this book – and rewatch Casablanca!

  49. Jeffrey Jarrett

    Casablanca is my favorite film and has been since I was a wee lad. Can’t wait to read this book and revist the locale and hopefully some of the magic!

  50. JULES M.

    sounds intriguing!

  51. Susan Morris

    My all time favorite movie! I’m hoping to see the comparisons in this novel.

  52. Karen Parisot

    Sounds like a great read! It will be interesting to discover all the similarities between the book and the movie.

  53. Darrell Robertson

    Sounds great! Definately adding it to my TBR pile!

  54. Elena

    This book looks amazing and I am excited to read it! Adding to my TBR =)

  55. Penn

    Ooh! This sounds amazing!

  56. spencro

    It’s a dangerous move to evoke a classic film in a different context, but this seems to hold the film at a distance, and use it almost as a cultural reference point. I’m sure this novel will be as smart as the previous books by this accomplished author.

  57. Sue seabolt

    Sounds amazing

  58. Trisa @ Absolute Bookishness

    Sounds fascinating! I’d love a chance to read this! ^_^

  59. camsgrma

    Guess I’ll have to see the movie! Always looking for new authors and experiences to read.

  60. jane

    As a big Casablanca fun, would love to receive this book.

  61. Beth Talmage

    Most people think of Casablanca when they hear “Morocco” but I think of my dad’s stories of his time there during WW2.

  62. Tiffany

    Looks really good

  63. Daniel M

    sounds like a fun one

  64. Lia Simpson

    It’s funny that you’re paying homage and partially creating a contemporary remaking of the film but you have great fear of others revisiting the classic. Have faith 😊 great writers and directors can do great things and might just inspire a new generation. Can’t wait to read it!

  65. Marc Davey

    Sounds intriguing…being inspired by what many consider a classic and very much so, an untouchable, takes one to new places that will capture the writer and the reader…looking forward as always to your stories..

  66. Lawrence H.

    I’m finishing up Thomas Kell #3 and really am enjoying your novels. They seem fairly realistic…no crazy gadgets, just plain old fashioned spycraft. Hope to read more soon!!

  67. Justine Kneipher
  68. Justine Kneipher

    Looking forward to another masterpiece by Charles Cumming. All of his books are excellent

  69. Kirsty Smith

    He captures the allure of being a part of the gilded cage which is the writer’s life remarkably well. His spys are also always relatable every men caught up in unusual situations. This should be a good one!

  70. Joyce Benzing

    Sounds very interesting!

  71. Carlos

    I’ve read ‘A Foreign Country’ and ‘A Colder War,’ and I’m now looking forward to getting a copy of ‘The Moroccan Girl.’

  72. Marissa Ovick

    Really enjoying reading The Moroccan Girl. Also enjoying all of the movie references/homages including Casablanca and The Man Who Knew Too Much. I wonder-are there also some references to the Gene Tierney & Dana Andrews film, Laura? It seems that Kit began falling in love with Lara from a picture. Also, a few other things, but I don’t want to ruin surprises for others. Thoroughly enjoying the book and the richness provided by all of the homages.


    New author for me would be very good Thanks for the chance

  74. Marcus Gorman

    Looking forward to this newest book–love your contributions to the spy genre and will be excited to read it!

  75. Dianna Young

    Sounds interesting!

  76. temple run

    Oh, great, your article gives me useful information and a fresh perspective on the subject.

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