Writer and magician Glen David Gold has accomplished a supernatural feat of literary sleight of hand. His first novel, Carter Beats the Devil, is a marvelous work that portrays a performer and an era with a sense of wonder and mystery.
Set in the 1920s, Gold's story follows the career of Charles Carter, a rich man's son who becomes fascinated with the world of magic. Turning his back on a lucrative financial career, Carter embarks on a vaudeville tour as a second-tier magician. His big break comes, however, and soon he's calling himself Carter the Great, dazzling audiences with complex illusions. The famous magician gains unwanted attention when President Warren G. Harding dies the night he attends one of Carter's performances.
The challenges to Carter's resolve and professional abilities in the wake of Harding's death form the basis of this engaging tale. Gold skillfully brings the reader onstage during a magician's performance, but, like a seasoned conjurer, never reveals how the tricks are done, dazzling instead with descriptions of the feats themselves. Magicians at the time were as much technicians as skilled performers, and Gold gives tantalizing glimpses of the complex mechanisms that Carter uses in his extravaganza. Gold's story is even more astonishing because Carter himself is a historical figure. The writer blends the factual details of the once-celebrated magician's life—he did indeed perform an illusion called "Carter Beats the Devil"—with events imaginative and speculative in an impressive feat of literary legerdemain. The book's cover is one of Carter's actual promotional posters, and Harry Houdini, by far the most famous magician of the age, also makes a cameo appearance. But it is Carter who takes center stage, and he proves to be an intensely fascinating character.
An absorbing first novel, Carter Beats the Devil is a wondrous work. From its bravura beginning to its riveting climax, Gold's novel defies the reader to perform the trick of putting the book down.
Gregory Harris is a writer and editor in Indianapolis.