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Carter Beats the Devil (2001)

by Glen David Gold

MembersReviewsPopularityAverage ratingMentions
2,509544,819 (4.06)61
The mysterious death of President Harding in 1923 is only the curtain raiser to this extraordinary novel of magic and science. Charles Carter is Carter the Great, a name given to him by the supreme showman, Harry Houdini. Carter was born into privilege but became a magician out of need. Only at the moment of the performance, when an audience is brought together by a single experience, can Carter defeat his crippling fear of loneliness. But with every step into the twentieth Century, the stakes are growing higher. Science and the cinema are fast out-stripping even the master magician and instead of that single magic moment, there is only a headlong rush into an uncertain future.… (more)
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    shanerichmond: The lives of two magicians, and a slightly old- fashioned mode of storytelling seem to connect these books in my mind. Perhaps they are not that similar under the surface but they are both excellent.
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    kitzyl: Commonalities include: nostalgia for the golden (criminal/magic) days gone by, details of an old and mysterious craft (horology/sleight of hand), flashbacks to character's childhood which explains their nowadays persona, mystery-thriller involving technological machines (truth-automata-bees/television).… (more)
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» See also 61 mentions

Showing 1-5 of 54 (next | show all)
Carter Beats the Devil by Glen Gold (2002)
  sharibillops | May 20, 2022 |
This is a wonderful blending of fact and fiction, focusing on Charles Carter, a magician in the early part of the 20th Century. The inspiration for Gold's story, aka the jumping off point, is the somewhat suspicious death of President Warren G. Harding. From that moment of historical significance, Gold weaves an amazing tale full of wonder, as well as perseverance, grief, and hope. It also makes clear that a magic trick is not the same as an illusion, while continually reminding the reader of the importance of misdirection.

Because Harding, in the book, attended Carter's show shortly before he died, participating in the mysterious final act of illusion, a determined Secret Service agent becomes convinced Carter is somehow involved in the president's death, a plot thread that gives the story most of its tension. A digression to Carter's childhood and early career, leading up to Harding's death and beyond, gives the story its soul. Carter quickly became one of my favorite characters, someone I couldn't help but root for, with his almost childlike sense of joy and confidence that things will work out.

I'd barely read the first hundred pages before turning to the "Program Notes" at the back, then Googling new characters as they appeared so I could know which characters were based on actual people. And as a Marx Brothers fan, I got a thrill when, during the time Carter worked on a vaudeville circuit, a comedy act titled "Fun in Hi Skule" and therefore, knew the Marx Brothers would show up. In fact, Julius (Groucho) does show up with a small speaking role. And that's all I'll say about the many delights found in this book.

Writing about magic and illusions can't be easy, but Gold pulled it off spectacularly, grounding the story in believable characters, the ones based on reality and the ones created to fill out the story. This book is one of the most entertaining books I've ever read. ( )
  ShellyS | Oct 27, 2021 |
Still reverberating from the smash ending. I kept laughing aloud as another callback was invoked and another expectation exploded. I was quite surprised to read in the afterward that (the Great) Charles Carter was a real person. The character was handled with so much knowing that I assumed he was a vivid fiction placed carefully in the historic setting. I enjoyed it as a visit to teens/twenties SF and Oakland. And the author's messages gave me pleasure: Recurrence is inevitable. Wonder is the purpose of life and it is the Devil who diverts us toward acceptance and fatigue. The only quibbles I'll mention are 1) that Charles' and James' father's outre interests are very important and then never mentioned again; 2) James and Tom's partnership is perhaps too modern. Really fun -- what great prose in the service of a truly creative and entertaining ride. ( )
  Je9 | Aug 10, 2021 |
The "mysterious death of Warren Harding" plot is a bit boring, but this is supremely entertaining otherwise, a broad, big-hearted book. Probably closer to 4.5 stars. ( )
  skolastic | Feb 2, 2021 |
I've got to give Glen David Gold credit for looking for -- and finding -- a good story in some unexpected places. It's one thing to write a book of historical fiction that's set during the French Revolution, or the First World War, or some other well-publicized historical epoch. It's quite another to build your story about Warren G. Harding, fill it with vaudeville-era magicians not named "Harry Houdini" and Secret Service agents, and set it in Oakland, California. You can't accuse this author of choosing a well-trodden path, that's for sure. And he certainly knows his material: you'll learn a lot about the mechanics and theories of stage magic, the star-crossed twenty-ninth president, and the history of Northern California's second- (or maybe third-) most famous city.

And, at a sentence level, you can't call him a bad writer, either. His prose is fluid and flexible, and he imbues his subjects with a lively -- dare I say slightly magical? -- touch that keeps you turning the pages without flirting with pulp theatrics or cheap atmosphere. Gold does a more-than-creditable job of bringing his subjects to life, and, better yet, he skillfully evoking a time in which California still felt very much like a frontier of some sort. The Northern California described in this novel is still somewhat unformed, a place where eccentrics who'd struck it rich still had some room to spread their wings. But I felt that this book's eccentricity was, in a sense, both its strongest and weakest suit. "Carter Beats the Devil" features pirates, smugglers, an enchanting blind woman, a trained lion, a traveling magic show and much more. Its characters experience love and revenge and loss and betrayal and outrageous good fortune. Because Charles Carter, the book's namesake, still experiences a good deal of genuine sadness in his his life, you can't call "Carter Beats the Devil" camp, but some readers will find it a touch too whimsical. It might be no accident that it did quite well on the sales charts just a year before the tragedy that defined the first decades of the new century occurred: I'm not sure it would have fit the national mood after the towers fell. But this you might as well chalk up this criticism to personal preference: this one is, if not the most profound novel I've ever read, a ripping yarn by any reasonable definition. Be warned, though: at well over five hundred pages, it takes a while to get where it's going. Recommended if you suspect that the right author could combine all of the disparate plot elements above into a into one really good read. ( )
1 vote TheAmpersand | Dec 22, 2020 |
Showing 1-5 of 54 (next | show all)
Here is a book - a first novel, no less - to blow you away. It seeks to stun and amaze and deceive and, always, to entertain; and it seldom misses a trick in 600 pulsating pages. The style may be School of Doctorow, with florid flushes of John Irving, but the essential conceit is wholly original
 
This novel casts a spell that is sly, intoxicating, deceitful and enduring. Savour its every page, and don't believe a word.
 

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Epigraph
The most beautiful experience we can have is the mysterious. It is the fundamental emotion which stands at the cradle of true art and true science. Whoever does not know it and can no longer wonder, no longer marvel, is as good as dead, and his eyes are dimmed.

- Albert Einstein (Overture)
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For my assistant
the mysterious Miss Alice
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On Friday, August third, 1923, the morning after President Harding's death, reporters followed the widow, the Vice President, and Charles Carter, the magician.
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(Click to show. Warning: May contain spoilers.)
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The mysterious death of President Harding in 1923 is only the curtain raiser to this extraordinary novel of magic and science. Charles Carter is Carter the Great, a name given to him by the supreme showman, Harry Houdini. Carter was born into privilege but became a magician out of need. Only at the moment of the performance, when an audience is brought together by a single experience, can Carter defeat his crippling fear of loneliness. But with every step into the twentieth Century, the stakes are growing higher. Science and the cinema are fast out-stripping even the master magician and instead of that single magic moment, there is only a headlong rush into an uncertain future.

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