Carter Beats the Devil
by Glen David Gold
Published by Hyperion
496 pages, 2001
Buy it online
Magical Mystery Tour
Reviewed by Karen G. Anderson
Set in the early 20th-century world of vaudeville magic, Carter Beats the Devil is as fascinating -- and also as frustrating -- as a conjurer's act.
Like a veteran illusionist, first-time author Glen David Gold puts his audience off balance immediately. The apparent murderer is glamorous and appealing: Charles Carter, a well-known magician from a wealthy family of San Francisco eccentrics. The novel's sleuth, on the other hand, is a bumbler: Jack Griffin, a retirement-age Secret Service agent despised by his younger colleagues. The victim -- here Gold goes for high stakes -- is none other than the 29th president of the United States, Warren G. Harding.
The dissolute president, leading an administration that is sinking into unprecedented corruption and greed, has appeared anxious and frightened during a 1923 train trip to the West Coast, designed as an escape from the political anxieties of Washington, D.C. It's likely that the president's backstage visit with the magician, and his subsequent eagerness to participate in a hair-raising stunt, holds a clue to his unexplained death a few hours later in a San Francisco hotel room. But the taciturn Carter, still recovering from the violent demise of his young wife in a magic trick gone wrong some years earlier, simply refuses to tell anyone what the unhappy chief executive revealed to him in his last moments. Instead, the magician eludes authorities and sets sail on a cruise ship to Athens, only to reappear in San Francisco a few days later.
Gold stacks the first chapter of Carter Beats the Devil with such a profusion of quirky characters, coy historical references and red herrings that the story comes near to exploding in his face from an excess of cleverness.
"In any case, I know which part of my act you might enjoy the most," Carter smiled his half-smile. "It involves being butchered with knives and eaten by a wild animal."
Despite such titillation, there's not much of substance for the reader to start with. Fat-cat Harding is an unappealing murder victim, Carter comes across as cold and inscrutable, and agent Griffin is merely pathetic. At the end of the opening chapter I felt somehow set up, like a pedestrian importuned by a three-card monte dealer.
Wary as a volunteer from the audience, I nonetheless kept reading. Gold redeems himself in the subsequent chapters of this often elegantly written book. He spins a fascinating story, beginning with Carter's childhood encounter with the demanding and frightening world of magic. The boy's intellectual mother wafts back East to spend two years in trendy psychotherapy, leaving him and his younger brother, James, in the absentminded care of their entrepreneurial dad. The father dashes off on a real-estate buying trip, unaware that the servants are taking the day off. A blizzard blows in, the adults are unable to get home and Charles and James spend an eerie week alone in the family mansion. The bored boy discovers and becomes engrossed in a book of magic and sleight-of-hand tricks. Lest this sound too idyllic, the adventure ends when their drunken groundskeeper turns up, expecting to be paid, and Carter unwisely pesters him with a magic trick. A few hours later, the father returns from his business trip to find that the nasty gardener has imprisoned the boys in some antique torture devices the parents keep in the basement. Unfortunately, dad is so preoccupied with his recent financial coup that he accepts the gardener's side of the story and chides the boys for breaking into his locked cache. Magic, Charles learns, is often unappreciated. Nevertheless, he pursues his muse. Avoiding the Ivy League education planned for him by his parents, Carter serves a dreary, dirty apprenticeship in the world of roadhouse legerdemain.
This sets the tone for Charles' career and the book itself. Bitter endings and tragic misunderstandings are interspersed with idealistic and romantic moments -- and a fair amount of humor. Carter emerges as a misunderstood and star-crossed hero. Griffin's history is less detailed, but we see him deteriorate from a promising if humorless rookie agent into the rumpled forerunner of the Columbo school of detection.
Over the course of his yarn, Gold brings back to life the great and greatly egotistical Harry Houdini (who gives Carter a portrait of himself as a wedding gift). Based on extensive research into illusionists of the period, he also creates the sadistic Mysterioso, a top-billed prestidigitator who abuses the struggling Carter at every opportunity. When Carter finally turns the tables -- onstage -- on Mysterioso, it nearly costs him his career. Only Houdini's intervention saves him. Magic aficionados will enjoy these vignettes, as well as the quotations from magicians of the period, reproductions of rare show posters and organization of the book to parallel the three acts of a magic show.
The first act returns Carter to the point at which Harding dies (or is murdered). The balance of the tale documents the pursuit of Carter by the hapless Griffin (who Carter describes as "the only person who even knew a trick had been performed") and a cadre of ruthless Secret Service agents. Gold adds to this mix a group of conniving San Francisco entrepreneurs, a brilliant young scientist, a librarian with the hots for Griffin and a mysterious blind woman Carter meets in the park while walking Baby, his pet tiger.
Genuine interest and concern for the compelling Carter kept me turning the pages, even when my patience with the convoluted plot flagged. Although Harding did, in fact, take a recuperative trip to America's West Coast in 1923, becoming sick in Seattle and perishing in San Francisco under what conspiracy theorists continue to call questionable circumstances (the official cause was heart attack), Gold does himself no favors by playing fast and loose with much of the history in Carter Beats the Devil. While the convention in other fiction of this sort (E.L. Doctorow's novel Ragtime, for instance, or Woody Allen's film Zelig) has been to set a fictional narrative against a historically accurate backdrop, Gold mixes well-researched tidbits about magicians of the period with jarringly anachronistic elements. He has a dog in 1924 named Lili Marlene (though the song was not published until the 1930s) and makes reference to Einstein's theory of relativity long before it was articulated. Anyone reading this as a mystery rather than a fantasy novel is likely to feel cheated at times, much like the beleaguered Griffin, who snarls at Carter near the novel's end, "You're a goddamned lunatic."
But those who stay with this tome (nearly 500 pages long) will be rewarded. Carter does, at long last, reveal the astonishing tale of his involvement in the mystery of President Harding's death, leaving Griffin speechless and the reader immensely satisfied. At the heart of this elaborate literary performance, the magic is there. | September 2001
Karen G. Anderson is a contributing editor of January Magazine whose grandfather was an amateur magician in the 1920s.