Historical and fictional details, characters, and events are skillfully blended in Carter Beats the Devil, making this story of a magician’s life something akin to a magic trick in itself. Amidst a murder mystery, two romances, and several subplots, the reader is constantly moved to wonder how much of the story is factual and how much the novelist’s creation. Gold’s novel takes an ambitious look at turn-of-the-century American entertainment, incorporating historical figures such as the Marx Brothers, the magician Harry Houdini, and the inventor Philo Farnsworth, along with details of life on the vaudeville stage, the beginnings of radio advertising, and the advent of television. Along the way Charles Carter’s sleight-of-hand tricks and his more ambitious illusions are described in historically accurate detail.
The central mystery of the novel involves the death of President Warren G. Harding. Harding has spoken often of knowing a great and terrible secret; his notoriously corrupt administration must have made him privy to many scandalous secrets, but now he seems eager to reveal just one of them. Harding attends a performance by the famous magician Charles Carter, known as “Carter the Great,” volunteering to be “killed” and dismembered in the notorious third and final act where “Carter beats the Devil.” Although the performance ends with the president emerging triumphantly in one piece, a few hours later he is, in fact, dead.
No autopsy is performed on the president at his wife’s request, but the United States Secret Service suspects foul play and begins an investigation focusing on Carter as a prime suspect. The Secret Service agents believe Carter’s illusory killing of the president must somehow be linked with the man’s actual death. The magician denies any special knowledge of President Harding’s “secret” or his death.
Once the prologue seems to have established the story as a murder mystery, the novel continues with three sections, each covering a different time period and named after one of the three acts in Carter’s stage show. Each is prefaced with a color illustration (in the novel’s first printing) of a vintage poster from the era, advertising the feats of famous magicians who performed during Carter’s time. The novel proves itself to be something more than a mystery; it is actually more of a panoramic adventure tale.
The novel’s first section, “Metamorphosis,” returns to Charles Carter’s childhood to show how he became fascinated with magic and to trace his rise as a professional magician. The mystery of what really happened to Harding is set aside and the reader is introduced to Charles Carter as a boy. The young Charles is simultaneously fascinated and repelled by a collection of art prints in his father’s study showing antique torture devices. Charles questions his father about the bilboes, pillory, and brank, in each case wondering how difficult it would be to extract oneself from the device. Charles’s first encounter with sleight of hand is depicted, when a sideshow giant takes one of his father’s collectible coins from him and makes it seem to disappear. The giant has a mysterious and, to Charles, frustrating power. Charles has no means to extricate himself from a bad situation—he can neither retrieve the rare nickel from the giant nor avoid his father’s displeasure at its loss.
When a blizzard traps Charles and his brother James alone for several days in their parents’ home, they find among their father’s books The Magician’s Manual of Legerdemain by Professor Ottawa Keyes. Charles believes he can learn to perform the sleight-of-hand illusions described in the book. After much practice, Charles decides to perform his first magic tricks for Jenks, the family gardener. Summoning the taciturn Jenks to the house, Charles takes a quarter dollar from him and makes it disappear. The gardener is enraged when his wealthy employer’s two spoiled children make his money disappear, and in a horrifying revenge hauls them to the basement where, astonishingly, Charles’s father keeps an actual set of torture devices— bilboes, a pillory, and a brank. The gardener imprisons James and Charles in the devices and leaves them. Charles is able to escape, but his victory is short lived; his father sympathizes with Jenks and forces Charles to offer his tormentor an apology. Rather than abandoning magic after this experience, the young Charles continues to hone his skills at sleight of hand; for Charles magic has become a means of having power and a means of escape.
Charles’s parents send him to...
(The entire section is 1884 words.)