‘Carter Beats the Devil’ by Glen David Gold (2001)


This is another book that I read because of the cover.  Sometimes being shallow does pay off, because I really enjoyed it.

As the pulp-style cover suggests, this book is set during the golden age of stage magic.  Houdini will make an appearance, as will beautiful women, just waiting to be cut in half and shot out of canons.  The story begins with a trick gone wrong, or maybe not, it’s magic so it’s kind of hard to tell.  President Harding has died and his last public appearance was at the magic show, indeed, he took part as an audience volunteer.  Carter as a character won my heart on page one when he is pestered by journalists wanting the full story: “At the time the President met his maker, I was in a straightjacket, upside-down over a steaming pit of carbolic acid.  In response to your as-yet-unasked query, yes, I do have an alibi.”  This book is a whole lot of sardonic smart-alecky fun.

Like Michael Chabon in ‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay’, Gold takes a niche piece of cultural history and then makes it memorable through well-realised fictional characters.  You learn the tricks and mirrors behind the spectacular stage shows and also the seedy behind-doors politics around protecting magicians’ tricks, reputations and publicity.  There is a wonderful villain in Mysterioso, who has a clause in his contract that forbids anyone else in the same show as him to perform high-billing tricks.  Oh and you also learn the first rule of magic trickery, ‘when you’re an escape artist, never chose sailors to tie your knots’.

Gold’s novel is long, though sections are attractively separated with full page adverts for magicians, and it can seem like a loosely joined sequence of set pieces.   Still, if, like me, you’re carried away by the sheet enthusiasm of the whole project, this is not going to stop you enjoying it.  A very impressive first novel, and a great little insight into one of those historical episodes you always wanted to know more about.

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