Back in 2001, when Carter Beats the Devil came out, I had an Advanced Readers Copy of it. I like history books and I like writers who set novels around real-life historical figures (like Caleb Carr’s The Alienst –a masterful work of whodunit and real-life history).
But, as it happens to many long-time readers, other things take its place; such as happened with this book. Somehow, also, over the years, I lost my ARC of this book; either gave it way or threw it out. But a few weeks ago, I came across it at Iliad’s in NOHO and for $5, I bought it.
Carter Beats the Devil begins in 1923, and is set within the world of vaudeville magic. There we meet Charles Carter, a well-known magician from a wealthy family of San Francisco eccentrics, who the secret service thinks may have just assassinated the 29th president of the United States, Warren G. Harding. One agent, Jack Griffin, a retirement-age Secret Service agent despised by his younger colleagues (who also happened to be near President McKinley when he was shot by assassins in 1901), is on the case thinks that the president’s backstage visit with the magician, and his subsequent eagerness to participate in a hair-raising stunt, proves that Carter holds a clue to the unexplained death of Harding a few hours later in a San Francisco hotel room. But 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.
From there, the novel explores the origins of Charles Carter’s love of magic before returning to the present –perused by Griffin. Also thrown arduously in is Philo Farnsworth, the man who invented television and his desire to secure funding for his invention, along with Harry Houdini and cast of wild characters.
The book is also a fictionalized tale of the real magician, Charles J. Carter (1874-1936) along with the after mentioned host of real historical figures. Those who stay with this tome, it is a bit long, will be rewarded with a genuine tale filled with mystery and historical references that evoke the excesses and exuberance of Roaring Twenties. Carter Beats the Devil is a complex story of one man's journey through a magical -- and sometimes dangerous -- world, where illusion is everything.