Charles Joseph Carter, Carter the Great, master illusionist and magician in the 1920’s, contemporary of Harry Houdini, was unknown to me before I read Glen David Gold’s fictionalised biography. I was also unaware of the corruption associated with President Warren Harding’s term of office or the mystery surrounding his sudden death. Both Carter and Harding are brought together in prologue of Gold’s novel, perhaps one of the most absorbing starts to a 550+ page novel I’ve ever read. Not that Harding is the devil of the title, although he is a victim of the stage demon that Carter fights in his show. Fortunately he survives in one piece, only to die suddenly a couple of hours later. Gold capitalises on the rumours of poisoning that surrounded Harding’s death to implicate Carter in a conspiracy. The FBI in the form of the hapless Jack Griffin begin to investigate and Carter must perform the most complex vanishing trick of his life.
So much for the prologue. This was as far as I had read prior to getting on my flight to San Francisco. It was enough to ensure that I kept reading – forcing myself to put the book away for a couple of hours shut eye before I reached my destination. I’ve got to say it was a perfect book for a long haul flight. A special mix of history, illusion, comedy and tragedy combining to ensure maximum reading pleasure.
Post prologue we go back in time to follow Carter’s genesis as a magician It’s a cruel start involving the torture instruments that form part of his father’s collection. Or perhaps it was when the world tallest man tricked a young boy of his lucky nickel. Later in life, Carter explains his obsession as “a way of turning back the darkness“. In following Carter from his beginning through to his triumphs, including recreations of his famous shows and some explanations of the tricks involved, Gold recreates the golden age of illusionists. Houdini as a mentor of Carter makes an appearance. As does a nasty piece of work, Mysterioso, probably fictional, who never forgives Carter’s victory as a professional rival.
Plots within plots, murder, mystery and more than a sprinkling of romance. Plus the dawning of the age of television and the associated intrigues involving a young inventor, a president and a magician. I don’t know if Carter ever spun plates, but Gold certainly does in this exuberant literary show. I recommend that you buy your ticket and settle down in the stalls to enjoy a performance par excellence. Enjoy but don’t believe everything you read for Gold has “subjected history to vanishes, immolations and other acts of misdirection“, demonstrating a magical sleight of pen. You find me in the front-row awarding a truly deserved standing ovation.