Writing historical fiction is a tricky thing. You want to make sure it is accurate to the era, making factual references to people and events. But when you write a historical fiction starring actual people, you’re creating a magic show right there. The misdirection required to give just enough truth about people to make you believe it’s rooted in reality while having a story that is wholly made up is no easy task.
In terms of truth telling, Carter Beats the Devil ranks somewhere between a biography of Abraham Lincoln and Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter, heavily leaning to the latter. Glen David Gold doesn’t introduce the undead, mind you, though death is something that is played around with. No, what he does is take the bare bones of the history of an actual magician, Charles Joseph Carter, and weaves it into a story that is…oh, all right—magical.
Part of the trick is the fact that Carter the Great was real. You can find his magic act posters easily enough with a Google search, but unlike Houdini, for most of us he’s an unknown. But because we know he was real, it means we trust that Gold is going to tell us truth, at least in part. Yeah, it’s a fiction story, we know that. But that stuff about how he got interested in magic is real, right? About his first wife? Isn’t it?
Mayyybe. Maybe not. It’s the strength of such a book that after reading it you’re going to want to find a biography of the man and sort out fact from fiction, so I won’t spoil that for you.
But while the line between fiction and non-fiction might be blurred in the everyday elements of his life, they are woven seamlessly into several other elements: a fictional rivalry between Carter and a magician named “Mysterioso”, a mystery surrounding his dead wife possibly not being dead, and a storyline more easily recognized for its adventure/thriller elements that will have an impact on the world as we know it.
Other historical figures are drawn into this web as integral parts: from President Warren G Harding shortly before his death to a certain inventor you should all be familiar with (but probably aren’t), Philo Farnsworth. On top of that you have people like Harry Houdini, the Marx Brothers (before they were the Marx Brothers), BMW founder Max Fritz, and the insanely rich Francis Marion “Borax” Smith playing small but significant parts.
Much of the present day end of the story takes place in San Francisco in 1923, but it quickly goes back to Charles Carter’s origins as a child in 1888, aged 9 (he performed his first act at 10), to when he took time off from school (and eventually abandoned) in favour of a career on stage, to his life as a touring magician overseas, where he received his greatest fame.
But then in 1923 things take a sinister turn. President Harding agrees to appear on stage in Carter’s show. Not long after, the president is dead. Was it pneumonia, or something more sinister? And where does Carter fit into this? Much of the novel involves a Secret Service agent (who had failed to protect President McKinley from assassination) investigating Carter’s past and trying to find out what he knows.
It can be argued that this novel is a bit aimless at times, but I disagree. On the one hand it is trying to immerse you in an era, and you can’t do that by sticking ram-rod with the main plot all the time. It gives you time to breath and live in this world and appreciate it for what it is.
On the other hand, this is yet another form of misdirection. With the story taking you in so many directions, you can’t be sure which parts will be relevant to the central plot or how they come together until the third act. But remember, if you were to strip away the set design and fancy performing style of any major magic act, down to just the illusion itself, you wouldn’t enjoy yourself half as much. You’d probably also spot the strings. And of course, I simply enjoyed the world presented of 1920s San Francisco.
This was Gold’s first novel, and it was an excellent debut. Carter Beats the Devil was meant to be made into a film around the time of The Prestige and The Illusionist, but got caught in development hell. However, there is still hope for it to magically appear on the silver screen in the near future. But why settle for that, when you can read a far more engrossing novel instead?