Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Review: Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold

The month of June has been brought to you by the state of exhaustion. Never, ever before have I experienced a busier, more stressful, more exciting month in my life. Part one of June was consumed by wedding prep, the wedding itself, and the honeymoon. Part two of June has been completely filled with the purchasing of our first home and then the subsequent moving of all of our belongings into said house. All the fun doesn't stop there, though, because even though the house certainly is livable, we will be (and have been) renovating almost every room in it. Between the physical exertion of these activities and the sleep deprivation that comes with getting used to the creaks and groans of a 125 year old home in the middle of the night, I am flat-out exhausted.

I only note this because I have been derelict in my duties to review anything, whether it be books, restaurants, or beer. Luckily (sort of) I've had no time to read, so I don't have a queue of backed up reviews other than this one. Beer reviews, on the other hand, will be forthcoming.

Enough of my whining. I owe you folks a review and I intent to deliver.

Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold is about magic. Magic: the stuff you know doesn't exist, but you hope does in spite of what you know. Sleights of hand, card tricks, levitation, dangerous feats with sharp or very, very fiery items, and all the other good stuff that boggles the mind.

Charles Carter, the protagonist in this novel, actually was a magician during the 1920s, though this certainly can not be considered a factual biography by any means. The plot of Carter Beats the Devil focuses on Carter's performance that occurs the night before the then-president of the United States, Warren G. Harding, dies in his hotel room. Harding had attended the performance and actually had an appearance in the final act whose name the title of the novel draws from. Since Carter had spent time alone with Harding before the performance and was one of the last to speak with him, he naturally becomes a prime suspect in the case.

As this crime involved the president, the Secret Service are tasked with solving the case and figuring out what exactly happened that night in Harding's hotel room. Through this investigation details on Carter's past are brought up and the reader learns about his childhood and his rise to fame as a magician. Through this clever device, Charles Carter slowly transitions from the subject of an investigation to the main character of the novel.

Despite the description, Carter Beats the Devil is not a typical mystery or perhaps even a mystery novel at all. Yes, there is the whodunnit aspect and yes there is the obligatory plot twist at the end, but in between are three separate love stories, a tale of the rise and fall of fame, the invention of television, and a number of other things you would never attribute to a mass market mystery (at least, not the new ones).

The characters are, for the most part, are beautifully developed, though a few of the peripheral characters could have used a little work. Easily the best part of this novel is the description of the setting in which the story takes place. Most of it is in Prohibition Era San Francisco, with its brothels, speakeasies, dock workers, and beautiful views. I've never been to San Francisco, let alone in the 1920s, but Gold does such a remarkable job describing it that I feel like I can imagine it perfectly. He also does a great job working in a number of cameos of famous, historic figures from the time. A perusal of the novel's Wikipedia page shows what I'm referring to.

So, overall, what did I think of the book? Though not short by any means, it is a relatively easy read, only bogging down in a few places. It is the kind of entertaining read that probably sits itself right in the middle of "lowbrow" and "highbrow" (if not aligning a little bit closer to the latter). I'm going to say that it is pretty darn as close to great as good can get. For it being Glen David Gold's first novel, I would say that it is not a let down at all. He will definitely have a tough time following this one up.

I give Carter Beats the Devil by Glen David Gold 7.7 out of 10 stars.

[I'm moving from 5 stars max to 10 to allow for greater definition between ratings. It was getting difficult to show the difference between, say, a 3.4 star book and a 3.8 star book even though there is a marked quality difference between the two scores. From now on, anything rated about an 8 (instead of a 4) will be the cream of the crop.]


Next up is The Thin Red Line by James Jones. The movies by the same name are based on this fictional account of the Guadalcanal campaign in the Pacific Theater of WWII. I've never seen the movie, but I am looking forward to the book. Also, as noted above, some quick beer reviews will be coming soon to a computer monitor near you.

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