Its always nice to come across a new author and after reading their debut novel to be left wanting to read more. This is what happened when I finished Carter Beats The Devil the debut novel by Glen David Gold.
The book can be described as a fictitious history of the life of Charles Carter The Great and American illusionist and magician a contemporary of Houdini, but it is also a lot more than simply a life story. The cleverness of Golds retelling of Carters life is that he manages to incorporate many quirky mysterious elements to the plot infusing it with a variety of strange and extraordinary characters that populated the world of the vaudeville stage circuit. This is the world of elaborate stage illusions involving wild animals, trap doors, smoke and mirrors, wondrous special effect the very essence of high theatre. Added to this there is conspiracy murder and political intrigue.
In the days before cinema magicians were the kings of the stage. Their ever more complicated illusions which defied logic or belief were hugely popular with audiences, the top performers became stars of their day to rank with todays movie stars. In fact many of their show stopping grand illusions which could last half an hour or more were set up as mini dramas on stage using elaborate props, costumes and characters. They always ended with a spectacular magical finale. These shows were in effect the movies of their time. Their themes ranged from the Wild West to the horror genre. However this could not last and the latter part of the book is set in the 1920s a period where a shift occurred from the stage to the new moving pictures and the fate of Carter and many others in his profession became less certain as their magic illusions could not compete with the magic of the silver screen.
The story begins when Carter is already a celebrated magician perhaps the most famous magician in the world so much so that the then president of the United States, President Harding agrees to take part in one of the illusions at a stage show he is attending. The audience see President Harding theatrically murdered and devoured on stage but when only a few hours later he dies in reality from unknown causes, the secret service is suspicious of Carter's role in the matter.
As the secret service begins to investigate we learn of Carters rise to fame as it is recounted in a series of episodic flashbacks from early traumatic childhood experienced which led the comfortably well off middle class child to become interest in Magic through to his formative years learning his trade with the travelling variety shows. We follow Carter through the highs and lows as tragedy strikes and his world both professional and personal is shaken. We also view Carter through the eyes of the tenacious secret service agent Griffin once the golden boy of the service but now years on after one fateful mistake an embittered middle aged man but still keen to make his mark. Griffin has his hunches about Hardings death and is out to prove a connection between Carter and the President.
Is there some mystery behind the President's death a conspiracy even? What dark secret was the President carrying to his grave? Have others around Carter met with strange deaths in the past? The mystery further deepens when a brutal murder takes place in Egypt that will have repercussion for those close to Carter in the US.
Gold spins a good yarn and the reader is engaged from the first few pages. This is an unknown world to most of us today, the status of the stage performer having fallen so much from the dizzy heights of this period where the top illusionists were courted by Presidents and royalty. The story is a fine blend of historical fact, melodrama, thriller and adventure with a few laughs thrown in for good measure.
Ive heard Carter Beats the Devil compared to the works of Wilkie Collins such as The Woman In White and The Moonstone and the similar sensation novels or suspense fiction that were commonly serialized in the 1850s and 60s that eventually led to the detective mystery genre. I can see why, the twist and turns in the plot and convoluted subplots added to the large slice of melodrama and richness of the characters especially the dastardly villains all fit the bill and knowingly or not Gold has recreated the feel of these Victorian suspense filled story in a clever, distinctive way.
As I mentioned before the story starts in the present but then goes back and forth in time by the use of character flashbacks, diary entries and newspaper articles, all fictitious of course but all having the hint of truth based as they are on real live people. The layering of the story in this way just adds to the intrigue and mystery surrounding Carter and his associates. Carter is always the central character but we only get to know him slowly in the narrative in much the same way that Orson Wells does with his main character in the film Citizen Kane.
While you could simply take the book as a rip-roaring read, plot lead in the old fashioned style, Gold also manages to enlighten us of the time in which it is set. The writer obviously researched the period very well indeed and skilfully as part of the narrative we find out about the changes in society that occurred at this important time in recent history. The ever increasing technological change, the emerging on womens rights, the effects of the war on society all play a part in the richness of the events that Gold uses as a backdrop for his compelling story telling.
Gold presents us Carter as a complex character, at the top of his profession but also consumed by self-doubt and emotional turmoil in his personal life. We sympathise with Carter but there is an element to his character that we are never quite sure about and rather like you would with a stage magician you never quite know to trust your feelings suspecting that you are always being skilfully misdirected from the truth.
This is a cleverly written book but you dont sense it until after youve read it. On face value it is simply a damn good read and would be ideal for a long hot summer holiday on some distant beach, but dont be surprised if afterwards you find yourself thinking about the events and the time period for longer than you would with most holiday reads.
At 560 pages the paperback version is a hefty tome but well worth the effort. In the edition I had published by Sceptre I also liked the inclusion of full page real life posters advertising the famous magician of the time The Amazing Kellar, Nelson Downs King of Koins and Thruston The Great Magician, which intersperse the book and add a little historical atmosphere to the text.
All in all I thoroughly enjoyed this book and I would recommend it to anyone looking for a good read.
Carter Beats The Devil (Paperback-576 pages published by Sceptre ISBN: 0340794992) can be bought from Amazon for £6.39 at the time of writing this review.
© Mauri 2006
With romance, magic and science as its central themes, Glen David Gold's impressive debut Carter Beats The Devil is an inspired delight, a dazzling combination of fact and fiction. Charles Carter is given his stage name Carter the Great by the legendary Harry Houdini and the jazz age of the early 1900s is clearly well researched, yet the romance and strong cast of characters must owe more to the imagination than to history. The novel begins in 1923 with the most daring performance of Carter's life. Unfortunately, two hours into the performance, US President Harding is dead and the magician must flee the country, pursued by the Secret Service. This is only an instalment in Carter's amazing life though as we are guided from his childhood, where both the family servant and a circus freak bullied him, to his rise to stardom and his eventual performance in front of the president. Subsequently, the protagonist is crippled by loneliness, widowed and hunted down by those who believe him a murderer and yet he rises again and again to delight and fulfil the highest expectations of his audience. The strong narrative and storyline make for a compelling read. And Carter is such a magical character that you cannot fail to be touched by him--loving whom he does and hating his enemies.