This week I’m looking at books that I think are worth rereading – and that I’ve reread more than once. These stand up to my tests, and I’ll try to articulate what it is I like about them. If any of them intrigue you, I hope you’ll give them a shot. I envy you the first-time experience.
Carter Beats the Devil is a funny, romantic, exciting, loving portrait of San Francisco, full of historical detail . We get to read about the the culture of vaudeville, the making of a master magician, the murder (?) of President Warren G. Harding, and the birth of a world-changing technology. What more could you ask from a novel?
Charles Carter grows up in privilege, but wants to study and perform magic. With the help of Harry Houdini, he becomes Carter the Great, making a dangerous enemy of a rival and an international reputation for himself. When his world falls apart, he tries to retire from magic, only to return half-heartedly (and unprofitably) to the stage. During his latest farewell program, Carter the Great performs a shocking and memorable illusion – President Harding is killed, devoured by a lion, then resurrected on stage.
But when the President really dies later that evening, the eyes of the press and the Secret Service turn accusingly to Carter the Great. The Secret Service is especially interested in the President’s private pre-show conversation with the illusionist, because Harding had been searching for a confidant to trust with a terrible secret even as the Teapot Dome scandal is erupting.
Gold uses a non-linear timeline, moving among scenes from the fateful night to Carter’s youth and professional development, then to his life following Harding’s death and his plans for a spectacular comeback. Gold establishes Carter as a moody man, intrigued by both stage illusion and the possibility of real magic, and a romantic who hides his wounded emotional core behind a facade of coins, cards, and scarves. As the story moves from flashback to ongoing events, we see Carter opening up to the possibility of a new love, working against a mysterious cabal that wants to destroy his newest illusion, and planning for the act that will make his name synonymous with Houdini’s. Juggling those elements takes confidence, and Gold pulls it off like a master showman.
Carter isn’t the only interesting or dynamic character in the story. Secret Service agent Jack Griffin, down at the heels and blamed within the Service for Harding’s death, regains his sense of purpose during his investigation. “Borax” Smith, the man who discovered the “Twenty Mule Team” detergent, is a colorful and quixotic friend of Carter’s, while Carter’s professional rival Mysterioso descends through the ranks of vaudeville, vowing revenge on his nemesis.
Gold conjures up evocative images of the decades when a young and optimistic America began to realize its power, novelty was the rage, and the Roaring Twenties were turning up the volume. He also gently removes the curtain on the age-old problems of loneliness, depression, and a desire for love. When the two come together on a stage – where else? – Carter really does beat the Devil.
I reread this for the intricate plotting, the richly detailed historical background (with the exception of one anachronism Gold deliberately uses), and the powerful portrait of a man holding himself together by his iron will. I also reread it because so many people I’ve suggested it to have come back to tell me how much they’ve liked it, citing scenes and descriptions that I have to find again for myself.
Check the WRL catalog for Carter Beats the Devil