#7 – Carter Beats The Devil

May 25, 2008

In my review of Donna Tartt’s The Secret History, I mentioned that a friend had recommended it to me by saying “I wish I’d never read it so I could read it for the first time again”, and J.S. from BiblioAddict mentioned in the comments that she felt the same way about Carter Beats The Devil by Glen David Gold. This is, to me, about the highest praise someone can give a book; that feeling of being completely captivated as an unfamiliar plot unfolds in front of you is all too rare. So I had to put this one high on my reading list. Now that I’ve finally gotten around to reading it, I’ve got to say that I’m dumbstruck. I agree with that sentiment entirely, because I haven’t found a book this genuinely exciting in some time.

Carter Beats The Devil has a similar setting to the films The Prestige and The Illusionist: the world of famous, rock star magicians at the turn of the 20th century. The novel, told in three acts, tells the story of Charles Carter, a.k.a. Carter the Great, from childhood and through the highs and lows of his magic career up until his final and greatest illusion: the titular Carter Beats the Devil. Along the way, Carter encounters and befriends many actual historical figures: President Harding, the inventor of television, the founder of BMW, and naturally, Houdini. This is Glen David Gold’s first and currently only book, but he’s already a damn master storyteller: He’s got dozens of characters in various narratives running at the same time, jumps back and forth between locales and time periods with each chapter, but he balances them all perfectly and keeps the suspense amped up the whole way through. You’re always equally excited and disappointed to see each chapter end, because while I was desperate to see what happens in the situation I was just reading about, I quickly realize that Gold is going back to another section that I was equally desperate for him to go further in. It’s a great trick. I’d compare him favourably in this to David Foster Wallace’s insufferable Infinite Jest: I was always pleased there to get to go pick up another storyline, but that’s because every individual chapter went on way too long and nothing ever happened, so I got sick of the characters Wallace was focusing on and wanted to hear about something else for a change. Complete opposite case here.

Gold runs through a dozen different genres in sequence here, and he pulls them all off exceptionally. Carter Beats The Devil has some of the finest action sequences I’ve ever read, fascinating intrigue between rival magicians, subplots about the birth of the Secret Service and the rise and fall of television and vaudeville, secret societies, prohibition and speakeasies, not one but two sincerely moving love stories, and a hugely interesting section where Carter sinks into a depression in the middle of his career. Gold spends a great deal of time describing the creation of new illusions, and the existentially bleak concepts Carter comes up with at this time are just astounding. (Oh, and incidentally, there is one part where Carter admonishes his practical, business-minded brother, “They’re not tricks, they’re illusions“, thereby confirming all my beliefs about magicians.)

I don’t want to reveal any more than this, because you’re only going to get to read this book for the first time once, and the less you know about what’s happening the better. So I’ll take my lead from the playbill which opens the book: “The management request that, due to the intensified nature of the performance, no patron reveal details of Act III, ‘Carter Beats the Devil’.” I’ll just say that this is certainly the best book I’ve read so far this year, and you should unquestionably check it out and see if you aren’t instantly drawn in by it. I will, however, add two interesting facts that I learned after finishing the book, unrelated to the plot:



  1. Hmmm…interesting little book blog you have here! I may have to keep track of this one.

  2. Thanks, Chartoose, and right back at you! You’ve already got me wanting to go read The Ha-Ha, I’ll have to add that one to the list.

  3. Calum, this is incredibly late, but I love that you loved this book. Wasn’t it amazing?! The funny thing is that I’d never heard of this book until I, on a whim, went to a book reading. After the reading I still wasn’t completely sold, but I decided to give it a chance anyway. I bought the book and ended up standing in line to get it signed. While I was standing there, the man behind me asked, “Have you read the book?” I told him no, and he said, “You are so lucky. I wish I hadn’t read it just so I could read it again.” Well, there’s a recommendation, I thought. Isn’t that crazy!

    I think it’s even crazier that not enough people know about this novel. It’s filled with such awesome fun that it makes you remember all over again just how and why you fell in love with reading in the first place.

    I’ve been waiting with baited breath for Gold’s next book for years. Here’s hoping we won’t have to wait much longer. = )

  4. I’m awfully late here myself, J.S., it’s been a slow month for my reading. Glad to see you’re back to updating YOUR site, though! Thanks again for the recommendation, this book was so great. I absolutely agree, can’t wait to see what Gold comes up with next.

  5. I’ve just come across your site and the article about “Carter Beats the Devil” when I was trying to check out the cover illustration, as I had seen part of that same illustration used on another product.
    I too share the writer’s enthusiasm for the book which incidentally I enjoyed nearly as much on a second reading. I initially bought the book as I am interested in illusionists and stage magic and more particularly because I had read and greatly enjoyed The Prestge by Christopher Priest. An equally absorbing and exciting read if you have not tried it yet.
    Can I thoroughly recommend another book which like Glenn David Gold’s book has entertainment in the early part of the Twentieth Century as an integral part; it is Water for the Elephants by Sara Gruen. I would rank it just below Carter and that is high praise indeed.

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