Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold. This is another "plot-heavy, moderately literary, not at all experimental historical novel about entertainers" (to lift a phrase from Steve Cook), in the same basic mode as The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay (occasional bits also resonate (unsurprisingly) with Christopher Priest's The Prestige). It tells the epic story of Charles Carter ("Carter the Great"), a magician of some renown, who invites President Warren Harding on stage during his signature illusion (which gives the books its name) one night:
Carter, Harding, and the Devil retired to the poker table, where a deck of oversized cards awaited them. Harding gamely tried to shuffle the huge cards-- the deck was the size of a newspaper-- until one of Carter's assistants took over the duty. As the game progressed, the Devil cheated outrageously: for instance, a giant mirror floated over Carter's left shoulder until Harding pointed it out, whereupon it vanished.
Carter had been presenting his evening of magic at the Curran for two weeks. Each night had ended the same way: he would present a seemingly unbeatable hand, over which the Devil would then, by cheating, triumph. Carter would stand, knocking over his chair, saying the game between gentlemen was over, and the Devil was no gentleman, sir, and he would wave a scimitar at the Devil. The Devil would ride an uncoiling rope like an elevator cable up to the rafters, out of the audience's sight. A moment later, Carter, scimitar clenched between his teeth, would conjure his own rope and follow. And then, with a chorus of off-stage shrieks and moans, Carter would quite vividly, and bloodily, show the audience what it meant to truly beat the Devil.
Carter's programs advertised the presence of a nurse should anyone in the audience faint while he took his revenge.
Of course, Harding's presence leads to some changes in the act, and a few hours later, the President is dead, setting into motion the main arc of the plot. Which I won't attempt to describe here-- this is a jam-packed book. Famous historical figures galore drop in for cameos, interacting with a host of invented characters. I can't speak for the accuracy of the historical information, but it's certainly a colorful cast, and a lively story.
The cover of the book is eye-catching, and I must've picked it up a dozen times in the bookstore. I always put it back, though, due to a general lack of interest in historical novels, and a specific lack of interest in historical novels featuring important historical figures as characters. Finally, a handful of positive comments, including Steve Cook's review quoted above, convinced me that it'd be worth giving it a try.
I'm glad I picked it up. It hit a rough patch toward the middle (when Philo Farnsworth first turned up-- I feared it was headed completely off into left field at that point), but the action starts to heat up not long after that, and builds to a satisfyingly baroque climax. The author cheats a little at one point in the climactic show, but then it's only fitting for a book about a great magician to palm a card or two to help build suspense.
It's a very busy book-- toward the end, it gets downright frantic-- but well done all the same. Amazingly, this is Gold's first novel. I'll be very interested to see what he does next.(Originally posted to The Library of Babel.)