I wanted to read Carter Beats the Devil mainly because somebody bought me his new book, Sunnyside, and I thought I'd read his only other novel first. Its a long novel, my hardback copy being 560 pages long, but a relatively quick and easy read. Charles Carter was a magician, contemporary with Houdini, who incidentally has a key role in the plot of this book. The story starts with President Harding making a visit to see Carter's show, coming on stage to take part in an illusion, and subsequently dying under mysterious circumstances that same evening, leading to Carter becoming chief suspect for his murder.
After watching Carter interviewed by secret Service agents, in the presence of his pet lion, obviously, we rewind to Carter's childhood and start a detailed study into his childhood, adolescence and the events that led him to become a magician in the first place. We learn about his skills with cards, his struggle to make a name for himself on the Vaudeville touring circuit, and his bitter rivalry with another magician, Mysterioso, who although brought down by Harry Houdini, re-appears at the climax of the novel to exact revenge. Even though this is a fictionalised account, I did feel as if I knew so much about Carter, his life, his loves, his losses and how he overcame hurdles in his life.
But although this is is a totally fictionalised account of Charles Carter, the man himself did exist, and this book reads as a biography in places. In examining Carters childhood and rise to fame, no detail is left out, and it does feel as if all these events could have happened. Many of the illusions are described in great detail, although not usually how they are achieved (there still has to be some secrets in magic)! It also reads as a chronicle of the period, with the advent of movie theatres and the invention of television impacting on the popularity and success of magic shows. In fact, Philo Farnsworth, the inventor of television is another real life historical character that plays a crucial role in the story, although his role is fictionalised.
But as well as reading as a biography, it is also a mystery/adventure story. Once we are back in the present, the aftermath of president Harding's death, carter is setting up his latest show, but also being trailed by Secret Service Agents convinced that he was responsible for the Presidents death. The President was under surveillance anyway because he was asking all and sundry what they would do if they knew a terrible secret, so not only do the service want to know if carter killed him, but also if he revealed what this secret might be! But these are not the only people Carter is being trailed by. At the end, in his final show, no less than three different people are trailing carter, for different reasons, which leads to a thrilling climax, and lots of threads tied up. It is all a bit neat at the end, which is satisfying, but perhaps a bit of ambiguity would have been nice.
This book strikes a good balance between character development and interaction, action, factual information about the time period and magical illusions. The most entertaining aspects for me were Carter using his skills as a magician/illusionist to extract himself from the various sticky situations he gets himself into, as competition for new and better illusions leads to him making some enemies along the way. It's worth anyone's time and definitely worth reading.