Carter Beats the Devil, the first novel by author Glen David Gold, is a fictional story about real-life magician Charles Carter that takes place across the first few decades of the twentieth century. I'd heard about the book someplace (Ain't It Cool, I think), and when I saw the 560 page hardback volume sitting on the library shelf I couldn't resist.
The book is essentially a period character piece that is steeped in magic - and by magic I don't mean fantasy magic, but the magic of illusions and misdirection. In many ways the book itself is composed of illusions and misdirection. It recounts key episodes in Carter's childhood, his years spent as a struggling magician, and his rivalry with the villainous magician Mysterioso. All this mixed up with a fair share of romance and tragedy.
The plot that comprises the bulk of the novel focuses on the aftermath of the death of President Harding shortly after he attends Carter's magic show. Carter comes under the scrutiny of the Secret Service, who believe him to be in possession of a secret divulged to him by the President, and possibly guilty of having had a hand in his death. Another key figure in the book is the tenacious but down on his luck Agent Jack Griffin, who is the centrepiece in a subplot that acts as a sort of counterpoint to the story of the rich and privileged Carter.
I expected to really enjoy this book, and while it is very good it didn't really grab me in the way I had anticipated. Thinking back on it, I can't really find much wrong with it. It's dense and detailed and atmospheric. Carter is a complex and compelling character - tortured and struggling to move forward. All of the surrounding characters are interesting, well defined, and often quirky. There are showdowns, edge-of-your-seat escapes, and fantastical (and apparently mostly real if somewhat embellished) magic performances. The book is written with a straightforward, fast paced style and is often funny and sometimes horrifying (the knife in the hand bit sticks out in particular).
I'm not sure why I didn't enjoy it as much as I expected to - I would probably recommend it, with the caveat that I myself was quite unmoved by it. Maybe it's because I was in a bad mood because of my computer woes, which pummeled my spirit into submission repeatedly over the last few weeks... Or maybe it just didn't connect with me. In any case, it's a good book and worth a read for those who find the concept of the book interesting.