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Carter Beats the Devil    by Glen David Gold order for
Carter Beats the Devil
by Glen David Gold
Order:  USA  Can
Hyperion, 2002 (2001)
Hardcover, Softcover, Audio, e-Book

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* * *   Reviewed by Anise Hollingshead

Charles Carter is a superb illusionist, but will he be able to pull off what is possibly the greatest illusion of all time? Making an elephant disappear is one thing, but fooling some of the canniest businessmen of the early twentieth century may prove to be the most challenging trick of his career. Charles, aka Carter the Great, is a circa 1920's illusionist. This contemporary of magicians such as Houdini and Thurston, was interested in magic from an early age, dating from a period of loneliness in his young life when his mother left for the east coast for the latest psychological treatments then in vogue.

As a young adult, Carter turns his back on family expectations of a future in banking and signs up on a vaudeville circuit. Thus begins his career as a 'Kard and Koin' magician. Carter's metamorphisis from two-bit magician to a master of illusion is accomplished through a mixture of bravura theatrics, chicanery and plain luck, and elevates him to star status. His show is so popular that even President Harding wants to take part. Unfortunately, Harding dies not long after participating, which brings us to the beginning of this exciting story, as Carter deals with the cloud of suspicion occasioned by the timing of the death.

The title Carter Beats the Devil is taken from one of the real Charles Carter's famous illusions, wherein the devil and Carter try to outdo each other in a bet to determine who is the greatest illusionist. These over-the-top illusions typify the tone of the story, which reads like a cross between an Indiana Jones movie and an Agatha Christie mystery. To save us from asphyxiating in the stratosphere of numerous plot twists, chases by bad guys, magic tricks, evil villains and beautiful women, Mr. Gold leavens it throughout with believable human emotions and events, such as when Carter takes Annabelle walking around San Francisco: 'He liked many small things about her, even the things that anyone would do, like how she shielded her face as the sun was coming up.'

There are tons of plot changes, but the story never loses its readers. Everything is well-paced and fairly even throughout except for the final villainous encounter, which is overlong. Although the tale is purely imaginary, Charles Carter was a real illusionist, and there are many other famous people scattered throughout, like Philo Farnsworth, the inventor of TV, Borax Smith, the eccentric owner of several borax mines, and President Harding. Many of the illusions described are authentic and the period of the roaring twenties is well-detailed. Just how much is truth and how much fiction is not clear, but that's the hallmark of a great story.

This is an amazing first novel, and I was captivated from beginning to end. It was truly hard to put the book down. I was also impressed by Mr. Gold's avoidance of exessive profanity, sex, and graphic violence (while several of the chase sequences are violent in nature, they're not graphically described), unusual these days. An excellent novel, full of thrill, chills and excitement, plus good old fashioned romance.

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