Whisky & Culture

Charles Carter... Illusionist

Now you see him, now you don't
By Jefferson Chase
Most books are a matter of taste, but there are also the rare few that are so much fun it's hard to imagine anyone not liking them. In the latter category is Glen David Gold's 2001 historical novel Carter Beats the Devil, which takes us back to the golden era of stage magicians in 1920s America.

The novel is a fictionalised take on the biography of real-life illusionist Charles Carter, who was briefly linked with the sudden death of US President Warren Harding. The story flashes back to Carter's childhood and his beginning on the circuit of vaudeville magic. In one scene, his career seems to end before it really gets started when the apprentice Carter upstages a lead magician named Mysterioso:

"So," Julius said now, "I heard you got canned."

"News travels."

"That character Einstein had it wrong: gossip travels faster than the speed of light," he growled in his East Ninety Third Street accent. "Here." He handed Carter a pint of whiskey.

Carter proceeds to get well and truly soused.

But Mysterioso has made the mistake of belittling Harry Houdini in his act, and the great escape artist turns up unannounced and in disguise with a trick to humiliate his rival, giving Carter a helping hand in the process:

Carter stepped back quietly, then registered the carnation, the cane - the old man had returned from the audience, and now stood with him. He faced Carter with bright eyes.

"I like your finale. Very creative," he creaked.

"Thank you.

"He sniffed, looking at Carter with some concern. "Bourbon?... You'll have to give that up."

Needless to say, though, this isn't the last we'll see of the evil Mysterioso. Dissed magicians make for very stubborn enemies indeed.

The rest is pure smoke and mirrors and show with an utterly enjoyable extended showdown. Along the way, Gold slips in some thoughts on the relationship between entertainment and life, for instance, when Carter explains the attraction of magic:

"The world is an awful place, isn't it? Magic makes it less awful for a moment or two." He felt like he'd torn away bandage, and confirmed that an old wound was indeed still there.

In fact Carter will heal his wounds - A potentially kitschy plot trajectory, skill and humor. Even if we don't believe it's real.