I don’t buy a lot of books these days but some weeks ago at a charity shop one title jumped out at me. I couldn’t say what it was that caused me to take the book off the shelf, but a quick look at the glowing quotations all over the cover and what sounded like an interesting plot made my decision, and I forked over two pounds sterling then and there and took the book home. Finding it was just a matter of chance. Or so I thought. Then I found out about this:
Yep, the cover of Carter Beats the Devil is framed and mounted on the wall of one Barney Stinson, main character on the CBS comedy How I Met Your Mother. I’ve basically been staring at it for years. Hence, more than likely, why it jumped off the shelf at me at that charity shop. My point is that when I say I really enjoyed this book you should take it with a grain of salt. There are clearly deeper forces at work here.
Carter Beats the Devil is the kind of book that has you running to Wikipedia every twenty pages, because its main characters are all based on real historical people. The protagonist, Charles Carter, really was an American magician in the first decades of the twentieth century. President Warren G. Harding really did die in San Francisco in 1923. Philo Farnsworth really did invent television, and Borax Smith really was a mining magnate and philanthropist. Some cursory googling makes it clear that their lives never intersected in the way Gold would have you believe, but he makes it sound so believable I was almost persuaded. Clearly, a lot of research went into this book; it’s full of the sort of historical details that are convincing in their sheer precision. A flapper tells her boyfriend, during an argument, to “go cook a radish!” He responds by imploring her, “You’re my baby vamp!” Publicity posters must be hung in secret by little boys between 3 and 4 a.m. to avoid a $30 fine, and policemen generously look the other way. Rabbis become rabbis to smuggle sacramental wine. San Francisco piers have large gaps in them every eight inches to stop drunks fishing there at night. The level of detail is impressive, even if it’s made up — though one has the sense that it’s probably true.
The book begins the night after Carter has put on a magic show, in which President Harding, in order to endear himself to the people, participates in an illusion called “Carter Beats the Devil”. A few hours later Harding is dead, and Carter is wanted for murder. The story grows to include Carter’s childhood and early career, the Secret Service (still in its infancy), fallen women, magicians’ vendettas and the invention of television, among other things. Gold seems to have a preoccupation with Pez candy, which, if he is to be believed, was introduced in the US at around this time. Oh, and Carter is the first American to drive a BMW and the first magician to use Max Factor Makeup. Gold clearly had a ball fitting all these details in, and I had fun reading about them, but if I have one complaint it’s a certain unevenness of tone. There is a central mystery driving the plot, but somewhere in the middle — somewhere around the invention of television — the book gets so bogged down in secondary plot points that it forgets the main one. There are some nail-biting scenes to be sure, but — and I’m thinking of one in particular, the nail-bitingest — you’re not always sure what they’re there for.
Things come together pretty neatly at the end, and perhaps too neatly for some, but all these meandering side plots are eventually addressed. In fact, I found the ending to be quite satisfactory. If nothing else, this book is fascinating in its depiction of what I have always felt was the true weirdness of early twentieth-century America. And not for nothin’, but it’s a lot of fun.