A Good Book: Carter Beats the Devil

Today, commuting home from work on the train, I saw two people reading The Cuckoo's Calling and three reading A Game of Thrones. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm a big fan of both George R.R. Martin and J.K. Rowling (and by default I imagine Robert Galbraith as I'm yet to read him…errr, her). However, it highlighted to me what might be called The Fifty Shades Effect in which a larger and larger number of people seem to simply be buying whatever book is currently most talked about and most publicised. I sometimes wonder if many people even go into bookstores anymore (online ones included) and simply browse until they find a book whose blurb intrigues them, buy it, and have a crack at reading it, no (or little) prior publicity necessary. I think this exploration of content, be it in reading books or watching movies or TV shows is something we shouldn't forget to do, and when you do find something good you should tell people about it, spread it around so others know how great it is, you help both readers and writers by doing this.

It's in that spirit that I write this post. I spend a significant amount of time writing content I hope others will read, mostly working on my fiction and occasional posts for this blog, but I'm also (as all writers) a book consuming machine. I read widely and I like talking about books (or movies or TV shows) I've enjoyed, especially ones that people may not have heard of and haven't received the Game of Fifty Shades of Cuckoo level of publicity. Word of mouth is how the best content spreads and I'm more than happy to contribute to that. I've shared recommendations on my blog before and I'm going to continue that with the occasional post about 'A Book, a Movie, or a TV Show.'

Today I'm starting out with:

A Book: Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold


There's two kind of books I find encouraging as a writer. The first is the book I pick up, read, and think, 'I could do better than that.' The second is the book I pick up, read, and think, 'Wow, I wish I wrote this.' Carter Beats the Devil is most definitely the second kind.

I've loved magic ever since my Grandfather started pulling coins out from behind my 'dirty' ears. It amazed me when they vanished and astounded me when they reappeared. I wanted to learn how to do that, so I did. My parents bought me magic sets, cups and balls, playing cards, and on it went, well past when most young boys give it up. So much so that eventually I became a member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians (yep, it's a thing) and worked a number of gigs as a table-hopping card magician. So when I picked up Carter Beats the Devil in a bookshop and read that it was a fictionalised biography of the 1920s magician Carter the Great, I bought it on the spot. I'm reading it now and I'm breaking my rule of never recommending something until I've finished it. It's that good.

Carter Beats the Devil is a stunningly well crafted debut novel. Set against real historical events it chronicles the life and career of Charles Carter, a vaudeville stage magician at the time when magic was at its marvelous peak. During one of his shows Carter performs an illusion in which U.S. President William Harding is torn to pieces on stage and then miraculously reformed. The next day he's dead. It's revealed that prior to the show President Harding shared a terrible secret with Carter. So guess who becomes prime suspect? The investigation into President Harding's death soon turns into a faux-biography of Carter blended with a mystery. 

What is fantastic about Carter Beats the Devil is how well Glen David Gold reveals character over the course of the book, both the character of Carter and the character that is the world of stage magic. The book is at its best when Gold is artfully describing the acts of magic, sometimes revealing the secret, sometimes not, but always through his language it comes alive, we see the coins rolling along the back of Carter's fingers and then we witness their vanishing, as if we were both Carter and the audience in the front row. 

It feels as if this whole book is Glen David Gold hiding both the false shuffle of magic and the levitation strings of a great plot. Carter Beats the Devil is a wonderful journey and I think it's a trick you should be happy to let entertain and fool you.