I was not sure where to post this (or if, in fact, I should). At first I figured that we “history geeks” are more likely to be readers in general – so I thought about the “History” area. However, I don't mean to say that those more into “tricks” don't read – I'm just trying to (blindly) hit the highest number of my intended “demographic.” While not a “magic” book, Carter Beats the Devil (Hyperion, 2001) by Glen David Gold, is certainly a book that should catch the attention of many magicians – especially those who love to read fiction. So, I am posting my thoughts on this book here in the “General” area for the benefit (?) of those who are considering whether or not to read it.
The first work of fiction I ever encountered in which the main character was a magician was William Goldman's Magic (Delacorte Press, 1976). In that work, the lead character, Corky, was a tragic figure that was also a ventriloquist gone mad: murderously so. Not exactly a happy or heroic image of a magician.
Later in life, William Murray's Tip on a Dead Crab (Viking Press, 1984) caught my attention, as did the rest of the series of mystery books that centered on its main character – a close-up magician. “Shifty” Lou Anderson also happens to be a gambler (horses and cards) who, occasionally, strays into the darker recesses of an already questionable vocation. So, you see, even the more heroic magic characters seem to need a “seedy” side. “Seedy” sells, I suppose.
So, when Glen David Gold's Carter Beats the Devil hit bookstore shelves, my instincts were to leave it alone. Having read Mike Caveney's wonderful biography of Charles Carter, I felt that any work of fiction that centered around him would either be woefully dull (Carter's life had some interesting moments, but, frankly not many that would make a terribly interesting novel), or so thoroughly warp his character that he either be an over-done “comic book” hero or a grotesque evil caricature of an honorable man. As well as the book seemed to be selling, my instincts further told me that it would have to be the later: seedy sells. But in either case, I felt, I would not enjoy the book.
Then I met the author and heard him speak on the development of the book. There was also one other very important occurrence: Mike Caveney recommended the book to me. There is no question in my mind that, though impossible for them to have ever met, Mike Caveney has a very real personal relationship with Charles Carter. Any biographer whose research goes to the depth that Caveney's did in putting together the Carter story has to feel as close to their subject as anyone possibly could. I felt certain that if Gold had done wrong by Carter the Great, Caveney would have said so. I hopped onto the bandwagon.
My favorite types of stories tend to be fast paced. Not necessarily “action packed,” but engrossing from the first paragraph. Carter Beats the Devil starts out that way, but just as quickly dives into a somewhat mundane and slow-paced series of events that are, so the reader would hope, designed to act as background for coming events. I say “hope” because at this point in the book, I was thinking that I had another Tom Clancy on my hands. This is in no way meant to be a compliment. In my opinion, Clancy is painfully over-rated: The master of the wasted chapter (pages and pages of information and/or dialogue that has no real bearing at all – ever – on the story being told). In fact, there was a point in the book where I wasn't sure whom the story was about: Carter or a beleaguered Secret Service agent name Griffin.
The story centers around the master illusionist Charles Carter, the mysterious death (assassination?) of a president (Warren G. Harding), his contingency of Secret Service agents and an inventor (who was also a real person and whose invention has had untold impact on the history of mankind). So, you can see where “center” is a stretch of the word. Perhaps part of the difficulty for me was my having some knowledge of historical fact and thus knowing the depth of the writer's prerogative that the author was taking. However, midway through the book, the patterns of the author's weaving began to appear for me, and the pages began to turn a little faster – and the book became less easy to put down. In fact, I finished the final section (Act Three at 131 pages) in only two sittings.
Besides the central characters, the author masterfully incorporates a cast of supporting characters (both “good” and “bad”) who could easily have been just names on a page; there to fill space. However, even the most minor play (or end up playing) important roles in the story. Some of these characters are names most will recognize, including that of Harry Houdini, whose actions in the story play a major role both at the beginning of the story and, indirectly, at the end. Some might recognize a few as caricatures of real people, only with different names and far different personalities, lifestyles and (so I don't give anything away) outcomes from their real lives.
The bulk of the book takes place during the “roaring twenties,” though there are forays into the later part of the nineteenth century and the turn to the twentieth. The author does a spectacular job of capturing the era without the usual overkill that marks many period piece books – an easy trap in which to fall. Though there are speakeasies and flappers, they are not over-described and dwelled upon in a weak attempt to drive home the era in which the story takes place. The backdrop descriptions have an almost documentary-like realism about them – but not quite so dry. They add well to the believability of the novel.
Gold's ability to weave historical fact and artistic license together grows as the book progresses. Harding did die under mysterious circumstances and the invention that is central in the story is all too real. It reaches a point where one begins to lose sight of where fact ends and fiction begins – and vice versa. It was not a stretch for me, by the end of the book, to imagine presidential historians scratching their heads and muttering, “why not?” It may have taken him a while, but Glen David Gold ensnared me into his world: a world both real and unreal, but never predictable.
After what I can only summarize as a “slow start,” Carter Beats the Devil becomes a nice roller coaster ride of “What's going to happen next?” intrigue. Though not true to his life, Gold's treatment of Charles Carter is, I feel, true to his character: honorable. I'm glad that I waded through the murky beginning of the novel, for the payoff is crystal clear and worth the journey.