Carter Beats the Devil

Carter Beats the Devil isn’t strictly a genre title, but it features magicians, pirates and the Genius of Green Street, so I hope you’ll forgive my sneaking it in this column anyway.

The story starts with the 1923 death under suspicious circumstances of president Warren G. Harding at the Palace Hotel in downtown San Francisco, and uses that as the central mystery set during the golden age of stage magic and early 20th century San Francisco.

The protagonist of the novel is based on a Charles Joseph Carter, also known as Carter the Great, whose basic life details form the basis of the story. The real Carter, did indeed live in Oakland and take his show on a series of successful national and world tours and own a tame lion. The rest is heavily embroidered and features a whole bunch of cameo appearances, including Houdini, Thurston and other giants of the world of magic, the Marx Brothers (under their civilian names) and Francis Marion “Borax” Smith.

The story gets a little sidetracked by details once or twice but over all it’s a terribly fun romp with plenty of action and magic geek detail. Magic, mystery, romance, murder… you name it, it’s in there. The Bay Area is lovingly depicted, and used to good effect. We visit the Ferry Building, the Curran Theater and Telegraph Hill as well as Oakland, where Carter himself takes up residence, and which is the home of Borax Smith—a legendary Oakland figure who inspires the young Carter and later becomes a more problematic figure in his life. Carter plays both the Curran and the Orpheum theaters and the glorious spirit of the wild Barbary Coast days during his debut, and the corrupt Prohibition era at the end of the novel are on full display. Glenn David Gold and his wife, author Alice Sebold, live in Oakland and you can see his love for the area reflected in the descriptions of the two cities. The love is reciprocal apparently; Flora restaurant in Oakland serves a cocktail called “Carter Beats the Devil,” which features tequila and chili tincture and is on my must-try list

The world of magic and magicians is in its heyday but the spectre of modernity hovers over the story. Central to the plot is Philo T. Farnsworth’s invention: Television, and with it the implication of a different kind of entertainment alien to the lavish stage tricks of the vaudeville and stage magicians and escapists. This is mirrored in the depiction of the corrupt Harding presidency and the transition of methods within the secret servicemen who protect him. Youthful unruly America of the era that spawned them are all in their twilight and the story is in part the chronicle of a 19th century man finding his way in the 20th century world and deciding what it means to him.

The characters are all vivid and feel real. In particular, Carter is portrayed as a damaged and obsessive man but easy to like and thoughtful in both senses of the word. The women in his life are complex and well written and I hope the proposed film version of the novel does them justice. The novel has been optioned by Warner Brothers, and while it’s a long way from an option to a film it would be wonderful to have a San Francisco entry alongside The Prestige and Rough Magic on my DVD shelf.

The plot is a bit of a magic trick in itself, with a bunch of unlikely and incredible parts coming together in an amazing and neatly wrought conclusion. It skates right on the edge of being too much, but anything less would not quite have fit and been disappointing. It’s a big book with a lot going on and requires a big ending, Carter Beats the Devil supplies it, and leaves you happy without cheating or revealing too much.

~España Sheriff

SF/SF Issue #105, May 2010