“Have you finished that crappy magician book yet?” I was asked, repeatedly, while reading Carter Beats the Devil. My interrogator hadn’t read the book…but she was right. Glen David Gold’s epic tale of magic, romance, lions, pirates, Pez, and television is…not…half as exciting to read as it is to summarise. Magic is sexy. Magicians aren’t. It’s the same as the difference between “electricity” and “electricians”. One connotes wonder; the other connotes a hard hat. The moment the man is the focus, instead of the magic, that man had better be the most sexy, dangerous, multi-faceted bastard out there…or you’re in trouble. Charles Carter is about as exciting as soap.
In the 1920s – the decade that thought “spats” were cool – magicians were hot stuff. Houdini was the most famous man in the world, and any guy who enjoyed bondage and exhibitionism was likely to draw crowds. For Charles Carter, fame means doing his “Carter Beats the Devil” trick, where he plays cards with Beelzebub (or a man dressed just like him) and then murders the Devil, live, on stage. One night, at a special gala performance for President Warren G. Harding (1921 – 1923), Carter gets mixed-up in what may be an assassination. The next six-hundred-pages determine if Carter killed the Commander-in-Chief, and what the President meant when he asked the magician if he should reveal “a great and terrible secret”.
You know how the Hardy Boys suck? Okay, “suck” is a bit harsh; but you know how the innocence of the Hardy Boys feels a bit like wearing a cummerbund while you’re reading? That’s the feeling I got from Carter Beats the Devil. While the novel aims for quaint, it misses the world. The characters seem to have speech bubbles coming out of their mouths. They are people in the way that Dick Tracy is a person: their psyches come in primary colours. The really interesting people – Carter’s mother; Houdini – are walk-on parts. Mostly, we’re with the blandly handsome, impossibly smug Charles Carter, ever-explaining magic so that it becomes little more than scenery. Even grief can’t revive him. He, like the book, is too square, too wholesome. He exists in the panels of a comic strip: someone who fends off evil daily. He’s like a rose-tinted memory of a man from the Twenties.
Like X-ray specs, or miniature cameras, chaste excitement is only really fun if you’re a kid. Whole chapters of Carter Beats the Devil have the nerdy “wow”-factor of a secret decoder ring, but this blushing eunuch’s view of life can only yield so many thrills. The one moment where the world as we know it (and as it has always been) pops up, is the time young Charles rummages through his mother’s dressing room. There, inside a wooden box “about the size of a dictionary”, he discovers “a metal object with a round head and a long nose, and a hand grip”. It’s a vibrator. Now, this object is only mentioned once. And I know my mentioning it seems prurient. But at least it proves Charles’s mother is a human being, not a party costume.
The trouble is: we don’t live in Douglas Fairbanks’s world anymore. Most people don’t even watch Douglas Fairbanks movies. Most people couldn’t pick out Douglas Fairbanks from a line-up. And yet, here is a book that could only be a Douglas Fairbanks movie. The modern world, full-of self-aware people and dubious motives, is – consciously – absent. Now I’m not asking for Carter Beats the Devil to feature gratuitous sex and violence. But I’m also not convinced that just by setting a novel in the Twenties, it automatically means “Twenties lite”: a monochrome world; Norman Rockwell-ish; dated. That kind of thing is good for a black-and-white ninety minutes, but it doesn’t sustain you for six hundred (fairly twee) pages.
A librarian in the novel is fond of quoting Keats’ “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer”, the one about a great epiphany. “I like some watcher of the skies / When a new planet swims into his ken / Look’d…with a wild surmise — / Silent, upon a peak in Darien”. These lines speak of wonder and mystery. They’re not about sea monkeys and Stretch Armstrong. Yet Carter Beats the Devil is quite content to tell a story that would have appealed to the Little Rascals. It’s stage magic. Safe. Neutered. The magician is a skilled craftsman who can assemble tricks. Like the book, we’re witness to a complicated bluff. There is no real magic, the kind that pulses under your skin.