Carter Beats the Devil

( 44 )


Glen David Gold's literary debut dazzled critics and fans from coast to coast. Now Carter's center stage for a spectacular paperback . . .

The response to Glen David Gold's debut novel, Carter Beats the Devil, was extraordinary. He hypnotized us with his portrait of a 1920s magic-obsessed America and of Charles Carter—a.k.a. Carter the Great—a young master performer whose skill as an illusionist exceeded even that of the great Houdini. Filled with historical references that ...

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Glen David Gold's literary debut dazzled critics and fans from coast to coast. Now Carter's center stage for a spectacular paperback . . .

The response to Glen David Gold's debut novel, Carter Beats the Devil, was extraordinary. He hypnotized us with his portrait of a 1920s magic-obsessed America and of Charles Carter—a.k.a. Carter the Great—a young master performer whose skill as an illusionist exceeded even that of the great Houdini. Filled with historical references that evoke the excesses and exuberance of Roaring Twenties pre-Depression America, Carter Beats the Devil is a complex and illuminating story of one man's journey through a magical and sometimes dangerous world, where illusion is everything.

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Editorial Reviews

From Barnes & Noble
Barnes & Noble Discover Great New Writers
Fans of Seabiscuit, take note! What Laura Hillenbrand did so well for America in the 1930s, Glen David Gold now does for the country in the Roaring '20s -- albeit in fictionalized form. America circa 1923, a nation founded on Puritan codes of conduct and the Protestant work ethic, found itself reeling, having borne witness to the unprecedented horrors of WWI. Seeking to recapture a lost innocence, and to overcome a creeping fog of cynicism, the nation reinvented itself with a new fixation: magic, in its various guises, including the mysterious new advances taking place in science, industry, and technology.

When 57-year-old President Warren G. Harding dies suddenly in San Francisco during his "Voyage of Understanding" tour ("an effort to refocus his tired administration"), the coroner provides no answer as to the nature of his demise. But one thing is certain: At his last public appearance the previous evening, Harding had participated in the secretive final act of a magic show performed by Charles Carter, a.k.a. Carter the Great. And Carter, a world-famous magician who brought his singular brand of illusion to a nation starved for wonder, is left to guess whether his most outrageous stunt of all will cost him everything. Gold's dazzling first novel is a meticulously researched tour of a bygone era seen through the eyes of a master of illusion, and a vastly entertaining work of fiction. (Fall 2001 Selection)

Washington Post Book World
Serves up sparkling vignettes like that one in droves, and in the end Glen David Gold makes good on the promise of his title.
Gold's novel defies the reader to perform the trick of putting the book down.
Michael Chabon
In his first novel, Glen David Gold gives a top-hat-and-tails performance worthy of a veteran trouper . . .
Kevin Baker
. . . an absorbing mystery, full of magic, romance, and history and populated with fascinating characters, both real and imagined . . .
Aimee Bender
Settle into your chair, get comfortable and prepare for an absolutely marvelous journey into magic and illusion . . .
New York Times
An enormously assured first novel.
Publishers Weekly
Set against the backdrop of early 20th-century San Francisco during the heyday of such legendary illusionists and escape artists as Harry Houdini, this thoroughly entertaining debut by an amateur magician with an M.F.A. in creative writing is a fanciful pastiche of history, fantasy and romance. The plot turns around the questionable circumstances surrounding scandal-beleaguered President Warren Harding's unexpected death on August 2, 1923, shortly after appearing on stage with the magician Carter the Great in San Francisco. Trapped without adults during the historic San Francisco blizzard of 1897, nine-year-old Charlie Carter discovers a book on magic in his father's library and entertains his brother with coin and card tricks. By the time he is 17, at the suggestion of famous "20-Mule Team" millionaire Borax Smith, Carter finds a booking with a seedy vaudeville troupe during summer vacation. Following graduation, he procures a more reputable booking and elects to postpone Yale for a year. At the end of his second tour, he is hooked and never returns to academia. Marvelously layered between flashbacks romanticizing the real Charles Carter's early years on and off the stage and later action in the mid-'20s with Secret Service Agent Griffin's conviction that Carter knows Harding's apocryphal secret, the saga has the dash of Harold Robbins and the sweep and erudition of E.L. Doctorow. As it unfolds as both mystery and historical romance, readers, long before the denouement, will be torn between the pull of the suspense and wanting the epic to go on forever. (Sept.) Forecast: Hyperion is putting $100,000 of marketing muscle behind this dazzling debut, with eye-catching cover art from avintage magic poster on the front and effusive praise from the likes of Michael Chabon on the back, so prestidigitation won't be required to make it fly off shelves. Copyright 2001 Cahners Business Information.
Kirkus Reviews
Debut historical, based on the real life of magician Charles Carter, that manages to get several balls in the air at once, only to let them drop along the way. According to Gold's account, President Warren Harding's death in 1923 came only hours after he attended, and participated in, one of Carter's performances. Indeed, the depressed Harding and the mysterious Carter even had an opportunity for a chat, in which, supposedly, Harding confided to Carter that he knew a terrible secret. Should he let the country in on it? From here, Gold backtracks to Carter's early life in upper-middle-class, turn-of-the-century San Francisco, a period and place he lovingly re-creates. After Carter turns his back on Yale and hits the vaudeville trail, eager to learn his craft, we follow him through the defeats of rival magicians, a meeting with Houdini, the early development of television, and on to his arrival at the pinnacle of the profession. Woven throughout is his suspicious involvement in Harding's death, which he can never shake, along with a rather odd federal agent, who dogs him every step of the way. It's very clear that the author himself is enchanted by the history of magic. He often historical data to set a scene to wonderful effect, describing in detail, for example, the strange and elaborate mechanisms magicians used to make bodies disappear and devils fly. But too often Gold lets his research become his tale when it should simply "inform "it; storytelling and character development grind to a halt under the weight of all that imparted knowledge. Moreover, as the story progresses, it shifts too rapidly from one character to another, one scene to another, one period to another, effectivelycooling down any tension the lengthy narrative may have built up. A wildly ambitious performance from a first-novelist who has all the tricks in his bag-but just doesn't know how to use them yet.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780786886326
  • Publisher: Hyperion
  • Publication date: 9/18/2002
  • Edition description: Reprint
  • Pages: 496
  • Sales rank: 244,421
  • Product dimensions: 6.25 (w) x 9.25 (h) x 1.25 (d)

Meet the Author

Glen David Gold received his MFA for creative writing at the University of California at Irvine and has written for newspapers, film, and television. He currently lives in Southern California.

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First Chapter

Chapter 1

He wasn't always a great magician. Sometimes he said he was the seventh magician in his family, the great-great-great-great-grandson of Celtic sorcerers. Sometimes he claimed years of training at the feet of Oriental wizards. But his press releases never told the truth, that from the moment Charles Carter the Fourth first learned it, magic was not an amusement, but a means of survival.

All magicians had boyhood stories. Kellar, Houdini, Thurston, and many of the best found inspiration during periods of illness and bed rest, when a relative would bring them a magic set to while away their days.

But not Carter. Instead, his first performance took place in a deserted house in the dead of winter, when he was nine years old. At first, the house was full. He grew up in San Francisco, Pacific Heights, specifically Presidio Heights, 3638 Washington Street between Spruce and Locust. This was a three-story Italianate built in 1874 to house the Russian consulate. But after a decade of poor fur-trapping seasons, the Russians could no longer pay the mortgage. Mr. and Mrs. Charles Carter III, newlyweds, moved in.

On the ground floor was the foyer, then the parlor and the drawing room, with chairs and tables from Gump's and window boxes around the fireplace where the ladies sat for tea in winter. The grand piano was in the parlor, and there Charles was forced to sit upright twice a week, pecking note by note through "Twinkle Twinkle Little Star" and other tunes from Instructive Melodies, the worn cloth songbook his humorless teacher pointed to with bony fingers.

Running from the parlor to the back dining room were forty-five feet of freedom, in the form of a hallway with rugs that always slipped, and when they were being cleaned, Charles tiptoed from room to room, looking for every adult -- mother, father, nurse, cook, valet, maids -- and if all of them were upstairs, he kicked off his shoes and skidded down the floors in his stocking feet. Then he was the lookout while his brother James had a go. James, younger than Charles and devoted as a duckling, never instigated, and was brilliant at behaving innocently when called upon. They never pushed their luck. Just two or three transits down the floorboards, enough to find exactly the right posture to carry them farthest and fastest -- they were racehorses, freight trains, comets -- then Charles would crouch in the breakfast nook, retying his shoelaces, and James's, and putting on his sweetest face to ask Cook for a glass of milk.

The house was paid for, as were most houses in Pacific Heights, on the trading of stocks, bonds, and notes. Their father was an investment banker, and better than most in his character and intuition, riding out the occasional panic and run on gold with good humor. Further, Mr. Carter was blessed with a hobby to which he could apply his imagination: he collected. When it was fashionable to collect European artwork, he did so, and when fashions shifted to Japan, the Carter house was home to three -- but what three! -- scrolls mounted behind glass that showed the cast of Genji Monogatari. Though the Japan mania caused many of the Pacific Heights social set to fill room after room with woodcuts of every single one of the 53 Stages of the Tokaido, Mr. Carter believed that to have three of anything was a collection. Then it was time to move on.

Charles's mother, Lillian, was a complexity: she had grown up in a house of New England Transcendentalists and passionately pursued the riches of interior life. A robust woman who could argue the politics of suffrage for three hours straight, Mrs. Carter also suffered fainting spells, allergies, and the overaccumulation of nervous energy. In one year, she received a neurologist, who said she had a depletion of phosphorous so that her nerve cells conducted electricity improperly; a somatic hygienist, who prescribed bed rest to replenish nutritional energies lost to excessive thinking and feeling; a psychoanalyst, who wanted to explore her girlhood conflicts with her parents; a hypnotist, who put her into trances to relieve her overstimulated emotions; and a spirit medium, who led a séance to rid her of abnormal spirit clusters.

"I have many, many neuroses," she declared at a parlor room tea to which Charles and James had been invited as long as they were quiet.

"I have them, too," said Mrs. Owens, who was competitive.

"But I've been invited to Boston for a study," Mrs. Carter said, which defeated Mrs. Owens and caused many of Mrs. Carter's other friends to ask questions: was she following the theosophists? Or a more traditional field?

Mrs. Carter was in fact to be a patient of Dr. James Jackson Putnam, a psychoanalyst and Harvard professor. "He recommended this book," she explained, displaying with pride her inscribed copy of Psychic Treatment of Nervous Disorders.

"Oh, psychic treatment," Mrs. Owens said. "That was popular...several years ago." Her lip curled with sympathy.

"No, no, this is quite new. Honestly." Mrs. Carter looked to her husband for support.

"It's..." Mr. Carter met his wife's eye and he charted another course. "It can't be dismissed."

Charles, almost nine years old, followed the conversation with an interest that deepened as he realized his mother was considering a trip to Boston. How long would she be away? Could he go with her? He glanced at James, who was just six years old, and who turned the pages of a stiff-backed Famous Men and Famous Deeds, humming quietly to himself. He almost whispered, "James, pay attention," but he didn't want to be dismissed from the room. The topic was abandoned, but Charles listened for the rest of the afternoon for clues: was his mother actually going away?

A few nights later, she sat at the end of his bed and explained that he and his brother wouldn't be left alone: there was his father, and Fräulein Reinhardt, and of course the rest of the servants.

"I need you to have a stiff upper lip," she continued. "James will look to you for guidance. You can't let him down." Charles watched her twist her necklace between her fingers. "He's so young he'll wonder why he can't come with me."

Charles considered, then, a different question to ask her. "When are you coming back?"

"That's a tremendous question, Charles. There are circles within circles. In fact, Dr. Putnam compares the experience to the Divine Comedy. You know." His mother nodded at him, and he nodded back, to show he understood. At bedtime, she had a habit of talking as if they were allies sharing a confidence. "First, you descend into your emotional life with a doctor as your guide, and then the repressed memories are washed away in the Lethe."

When she spoke -- she was adept at speaking and annoyed at those who merely talked -- his mother drew on many dramatic gestures whose source Charles could hardly guess at, as she shunned the theatre itself. Describing her progress through psychoanalysis, she flamboyantly waved her fingers and winced as if in pain. "You pass the moaning souls in the lake of fire, but you must push on past that despair" -- she displayed a faraway gaze of contemplation -- "till you come to" -- with a sigh of release -- "inner resourcefulness."

Charles followed the gestures and the sound of her voice, but little else. She was going to have an adventure, and when she came back, she would be more experienced and in better mental health. But there was no way to know how long it would take.

His last sight of her that night was in the doorway, her hand on the wall as she dimmed the light, her face illuminated by the dying orange cast of the gas jet. Lillian Carter knew how to leave a room with a flourish, and Charles loved the pauses before she left. She whispered, eyebrows arching, "The next time we see each other, we'll both have changed so much!" She put her fingers to her lips as if she'd just told him a secret. As she closed the door, slowly, stepping backward into the hall, Charles memorized the look of promise on her half-shadowed face, the way she anticipated a great mystery. It would be his last sight of her for two years.

Copyright © 2001 by Glenn David Gold

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4.5
( 44 )
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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 44 Customer Reviews
  • Posted May 15, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    Wonderful take on a historical chracter

    I'm not particularly a historical fiction kind of reader. I find that usually fact gets in the way of the overall good time of the narrative. That wasn't the case with Carter Beats The Devil however! This book is engrossing and captivating from beginning to end. This book was written as Gold's thesis project when he graduated from UCI with a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. If a first novel can be this good, then I am anxious to read any forthcoming novels written by this author.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted July 1, 2010

    I Also Recommend:

    This book is just plain magical!

    I fell in love with Glen David Gold's writing while reading SUNNYSIDE. CARTER BEATS THE DEVIL ("Carter") is a joy from cover to cover and was written before SUNNYSIDE. The characters are vivid, the plot masterful. If you're even the least bit interested in magicians/illusionists, this book is for you. If you enjoy books about America in a much simpler time, you will love this book.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 22, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Carter beats the rap, the odds, the competition and wins the girl...twice

    Although initially daunted by the length of "Carter Beats the Devil," the novel came highly recommended so I committed to include it in my summer reading material. At over 650 pages it was a little bulky for beach fare but perfect for my bedside table. The characters are well-developed and engaging, which makes the tale easy to read in bursts.

    We follow Carter's story from childhood, when he is first introduced to magic, to his early days as a magician, through his career in a field that is secretive and competitive. Author Glen David Gold establishes the story in an era filled with historical references, including the presence of such characters as Houdini and President Warren G. Harding.

    Woven throughout the tale of Carter's career are tales of courtship, romance, chivalry, danger and intrigue. Carter's first love blooms and grows despite his awkwardness. When disaster strikes, we mourn with Carter. When, later in life, Carter finds himself with the opportunity to love again we're compelled to cheer him on in his efforts at romance.

    Carter is a man who consistently strives to do the right thing in every situation. Gold does him justice, developing Carter as a sympathetic character to be admired and supported, even when it appears he may have gone too far in pursuit of his next illusion. This is truly a tale well told.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 26, 2014

    Anonemuss jr

    It's quite boring.

    0 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 27, 2013

    Magic As exciting as anything from the Boardwalk Empire time

    Well researched and very enjoyable

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 4, 2013

    Really a great read!

    Love historical novels - and this is a really entertaining one - based on actual events - never a dull moment and never know what comes next!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 11, 2010

    Great Book!

    Carter Beats the Devil is a great book. At first the size is a little foreboding but once you start reading it, you won't be able to stop! It is completely original, a love story between a man and his women, a man and his craft and a man and his family. You will learn a lot about magic and passion as well as the complexities of relationships of all kinds. It is touching and funny and has a great plot twist. Gold touches upon many controversial topics and digs deep into a few. This is a perfect book to take on vacation with you. If you are bored and want time to fly by- read this book! Truly a delight!

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  • Posted September 7, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    I Also Recommend:

    Magical mystery tour of 1923

    The Braille on the cover is a small detail, but is an indicator of its passion and detail. This a wonderful blend of history and magic, drama and mystery and romance.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 15, 2005

    Charming and Inventive

    This is simply a terrific book. The story is enticing, the characters are compelling and the pace is just uneven enough to keep you unbalanced and breathless. The interweaving of descriptions of the performances with the revelation of the trade secrets is seamless, and to me, is key to the singular quality of the text. Carter Beats the Devil is definately the best book I've read this year, if not in this century. I recommend it to casual readers and diehards equally.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 26, 2005

    One of the Best Ever

    Carter Beats the Devil is simply one of my all-time favorites. It is a unique tale . . . different from most main-stream action thrillers or best sellers. I loved the way Gold weaved together the tale of Carter's life with the murder-mystery of President Harding in a 'Forest Gump' style.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted July 22, 2004

    Not What I Expected

    This book was very unique and I'm still deciding if I liked it well enough to recommend it to a friend that I want to keep as a friend.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 24, 2003

    A Nice Change of Pace

    The story goes from some very captivating pages to some rather dry pages. The ending is excellent despite being somewhat predictable. It's not the easiest book to read, but well worth the time required to soak it all in. There is so much to be learned about magic and history from this book. I would definitely recommend Carter Beats the Devil. Looking forward to Gold's next book.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 27, 2002

    A good read

    The book is a very enjoyable read and it draws you into the story. You want to return to it and discover what comes next. It's a long book and uneven in parts. It's set in the 1920s but the language is modern.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted November 21, 2002

    Gold produces a gem

    Oprah Clubbers and Rippa Readers beware: this novel is an instant classic with substance. Gold doesn't rely on artifice and the illusion of literary talent as crowd-pleasing authors do. He's the real deal.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 30, 2002

    Best book this year

    "Carter Beats the Devil" by Glen David Gold was fantastic. Really well written, suspenseful, very well-drawn characters. I enoy historical fiction, so this was a real treat. It's sort of a suspense novel, but also introduces you to the mechanics behind the illusions created by the magicians of the '20's, '30's and '40's (Houdini, etc.) It has great historical tidbits about the Secret Service and President Warren G. Harding too. I read 200 - 300 books a year, and I'd say this was at the top of my list for this year so far.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted May 14, 2002

    No escape from adventure!

    A big read, but you'll find yourself not being able to put this down. Friends have borrowed my copy, bought by chance, and have had the same view as mine. Fans of period adventures will be unable to leave the house and go to work! Believable characters and rip-roaring plots. Glen David Gold has me on the edge of my seat waiting for his next offering! Can't wait for a follow up!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 27, 2002


    This book was packed with so much I feel like I need to read it again. Lots of book for the money!! Awesome historical information and tons of romance, intrigue etc. Reading this was like riding a roller coaster. Definitely the E ticket ride. Must read for residents of the San Franciso Bay Area!

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  • Anonymous

    Posted March 11, 2002

    LOVED this book

    This is my first review, only because I can't stop thinking about this book, and I couldn't put the book down. It was a great plot & the writing is extraordinary. It has the same wonderful historical fiction mix of engaging characters and real people that I enjoyed so much in the Alienist. (This book isn't nearly as dark, but it is magical.) I'm adding this author to my lifetime list of 'I'll read anything he writes.'

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 8, 2002

    A Rare Book : Really Well Written and Well Worth the Time

    This is a terrfic book! It's obviously written for people who love to read, not to inflame the ego of the author. It is genuinely rare to find a Glen David Gold, and as wonderful a book as this one is. A page turner, all right, but I savored each one of those pages, every single chapter. The characters are very well developed, but just as in life, these people don't act in a predictable pattern. Great mystery is afoot here; even if one thinks one can predict the outcome, the weave of the diverse folks with such disparate viewpoints into the triumph of the final act is utterly absorbing. The elegance of the prose is surpassed only by the vivid word images, or maybe vice versa? Oh well, it's just the two distinct sides of Carter's/Gold's plain white handkerchief, which in a heartbeat turns into a full blown spray of flowers. But don't be deceived by the impressive description of the magic illusions, or the fascinating plot, or the layers of interest in the action, or the complex characterizations . . . . . .There are deep explorations of the human experience here, which are every bit as good as that of Twain.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted December 9, 2001

    This is I search hard for brilliant writing!

    It only took me one paragraph to get hooked on this book. I never had any particular attachment to magic before, but I must admit this book has had me fascinated with this form of entertainment. I felt as if I were transported to the 1920's when people were amazed by the science and illusion of the day. Mr Gold has obviously researched this novel very well and is able to successfully reproduce the feel of the atmosphere surrounding the heyday of magic. My only regret is that every page I turned meant I would have to leave Mr Gold's novel that much sooner.

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 44 Customer Reviews

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