It’s a prequel. It’s a sequel. It’s both at the same time. It’s… sadly, about what I expected, but not what I hoped for after such a promising start.
This book has been sitting idly on my shelf, waiting to be read since it was brand new in 1998. My love for the film Casablanca made me buy the book. And it kept me from reading it for fear that it would turn into “that” book, the one written for the shippers that want Rick and Ilsa to end up together. Spoiler alert: my fears were justified. It is indeed that book. Casablanca was bittersweet. That’s what made it work.
I guess I should talk about what did and didn’t work in this book, and the only way to do that is to really go through some minor spoiler territory. I’ll try not to, but it’s inevitable.
The basic idea is that we pick up at the tarmac right after the closing credits of the film, with Rick and Louis. With Sam in tow just as the news hits that America has entered WWII, they head to London via Lisbon to meet up with Victor and Ilsa. Victor is convinced the Allies will win now that America has entered, and he’s determined to push the resistance through to victory. Speaking perfect Russian, Ilsa is placed in Prague as an assistant to the “Butcher of Prague,” Reinhard Heydrich. Posing as a “white Russian,” Ilsa is positioned to potentially become his mistress as part of a plot to assassinate him.
Interlaced with this is the story of 1932 New York, where Rick’s backstory as a Prohibition-era gunrunner / mobster is revealed. He rises through the ranks, falls for the wrong girl, does a double-cross, steals an obscene amount of cash… all of the things you’d expect that would earn him his expatriate status. From there he ends up in Paris, where he meets Ilsa, a student at the Sorbonne. That story goes exactly where you’d expect as well. No surprises, just filling in the story alluded to in the film.
The good news is, the characters are written spot-on. Rick is still Rick, Ilsa is still Ilsa. Likewise with Sam and Louis. These characters are written to the hilt, and their verbal beats just feel right coming from the imagined lips of their original actors. Victor… not so much. The reader is invited to believe in his cause, which we know is just, but he’s a bit of a sociopath once you get to know him. He’s a user, and a cold-blooded one to boot. Actually, I’ll come right out and draw the parallel.
Anyone ever read any of those unnecessary Phantom of the Opera sequels written by the Phans who just would not let go and accept the story? You know, the ones where Raoul had to lose every ounce of heroism, become a complete dick, and either leave or be killed so that Christine and the Phantom could get together?
Rick = Erik / Phantom
Ilsa = Christine
Victor = Raoul
It’s just that blatant. And once I realized it, that’s where the magic wore off. I wanted so much to love this book. The characters were mostly the same ones I grew up with. Beyond that… average, just average, really average. That’s a sin when it comes to following up one of the greatest movies ever made. Aside from characterization, the biggest achievement of this book was to make me nostalgic enough to watch the movie again. Thankfully, I keep a copy on hand for just such an emergency.