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Carter Beats the Devil

Glen David Gold


US Hardcover First

ISBN 0-786-88632-3

Publication Date: 09-01-2002

483 pages ; $14.95

Review Date: March 17, 2003

Reviewed by: Katie Dean

Copyright © Katie Dean 2003  



General Fiction

01-25-02, 08-05-02, 10-08-02, 01-07-03, 04-30-03, 07-18-03

It is perhaps dangerous for a newly published novel by a first-time author to be compared to one of the greatest mystery writers of all time - it sets expectations very high. On the other hand, to read that 'Carter Beats the Devil' by Glen David Gold can be compared to a Wilkie Collins seemed an excellent reason to try reading the book. 'Carter Beats the Devil' may not be a modern day Wilkie Collins, but it is no disappointment for all that. It could perhaps be said to bear some small resemblance to 'The Moonstone', but regardless, it is a novel that stands on its own merits. This book is a compelling read, primarily a great mystery whose complexities grow and grow before neatly unravelling in a thrilling climax. For anyone not satisfied with these ingredients, there is also a healthy dose of romance and the life story of a very interesting man.

Glen David Gold has a strong interest in magic or conjuring and it is this that inspires this novel. The central character is Charles Carter, a real magician who lived and performed at the beginning of the twentieth century. Whilst this is in no way meant to be a biography of the man, Gold has carried out a great deal of research into Carter's life and uses it to weave a clever mix of fact and fiction. In so doing, Gold creates a very likeable, larger than life man with fears and insecurities that he disguises behind his talent as a performer. This may or may not be recognisable to those who actually knew Carter, but it fits the purpose of the novel.

For anyone who has a fascination with the art of conjuring, this book is a treat. Alongside Carter, other great characters like Houdini and Thurston are brought to life. Stage magic tricks are described in depth and we are invited to understand some of the physical and scientific intricacies that go into creating an illusion. Carter also practices deceptions in real life to evade the police and very nearly comes to a sticky end when forced by one set of enemies to perform a stage illusion (minus props) in San Francisco Bay. Fittingly, Carter's arch enemy is also a magician, making him the only character in possession of the right practical knowledge to threaten Carter's life.

Above all, 'Carter Beats the Devil' is a great mystery. It commences with the death of an American President shortly after attending one of Carter's shows in which he makes a guest appearance as a volunteer from the audience. Officially, it is unclear whether or not this was a murder, but fingers are pointed at Carter. Initially it is only the police who question and follow Carter, but as the story unfolds, he gathers enemies at every turn and even begins to question his friends. The characters appearing are true fictional villains of all varieties - FBI bully boys, unscrupulous businessmen, ponderous but well meaning policemen. In between the excitement of the present day mystery, the reader is taken back in time to Carter's childhood and earlier career. All the time, Gold is drip feeding pieces of information that have a bearing on the central mystery - how and why did the President die? Gold cleverly adds more and more strands to the story, all intersecting and constantly becoming further entangled until we are left with one gigantic knot that, as if by magic, unravels just as it began, at a performance given by Carter.

Perhaps the only weakness of this novel is its historical context. Set primarily in the 1920s, with digressions to the turn of the century and a final post-World War II chapter, it somehow misses the feel of the era. There are many practical reasons that dictate the era, but were it not for these, there is little in the writing to create an effective historical context. Whilst this is a little disappointing in a novel of this calibre, it does not materially detract from what is overall a very enjoyable book. Anyone who enjoys a good mystery should certainly read 'Carter Beats the Devil'.