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Glen David Gold tells a magical tale

Blending reality and illusion in 'Carter Beats the Devil'

Glen David Gold
Glen David Gold was inspired to write "Carter Beats the Devil" by an old poster of a magician.  

By Todd Leopold

(CNN) -- About 10 years ago, Glen David Gold's father gave him a poster for his birthday.

The poster, which dated from the early 1920s, showed a nattily dressed magician, Carter the Great, holding a poker hand of four aces. Across the table from him, holding four kings, was a somewhat buffoonish representation of the devil. The one-sheet was an advertisement for Carter's show, which concluded with an act called "Carter Beats the Devil."

Gold was intrigued -- particularly when he discovered that Charles Carter was also involved, decades ago, in the building of Gold's Oakland, California, apartment building.

Years later, Gold enrolled in the creative writing program at the University of California at Irvine. While thinking of an idea, he recalled the poster and his old apartment and wrote two paragraphs of a story about Charles Carter. He realized he knew nothing about magic, little about the early 20th-century era, not much about Carter.

But Gold escaped from the trap he had set for himself with research and imagination, and within a couple years he had written a novel. The result is "Carter Beats the Devil" (Hyperion), a zesty, clever tale involving Carter, the death of President Warren G. Harding, a fictional villain named Mysterioso and a handful of other characters of the era.

Conjuring Carter

Writing the book was like creating a series of illusions, says Gold in a phone interview from his home in Long Beach, California.

"It was like writing a serial. Every five weeks I'd turn in another chapter," he says. His classmates were always wondering what would happen next.

Sometimes not even Gold knew.

A good stretch of the book concerns a cigar tube containing some mysterious plans. "I had to figure out what was in that tube," says Gold. "I put it off for months." The only thing he knew was that he didn't want it to be a "MacGuffin," the Alfred Hitchcock term for a red herring with little to do with the plot.

Conjuring Carter

And then there was the book's opening, in which Carter is being questioned in connection with Harding's death, the president having apparently died in his hotel suite hours after participating in a macabre illusion. Why Harding? What did Carter have to do with him? How did Carter perform his illusions? Those questions, too, waited until Gold could find out more about his characters.

What he discovered was that magicians don't leave very deep footprints.

"I called magicians when I was researching the book. None were interested in giving up their secrets," says Gold, who admits to little interest in magic while growing up.

But, he found out, magicians do write autobiographies published in small editions of a couple hundred copies, meant to be given out to friends and colleagues. Many of these turn up on the Internet -- for a price.

"God bless eBay," says Gold. "My student loan money went to these books."

Sleight of literature

Still, as any magician will tell you, knowing the secrets of a trick matters far less than the trick's presentation. And it's in presentation that Gold focused his energy in "Carter Beats the Devil."

The tale, rich with period detail and characterization, constantly moves and occasionally misdirects. The first half of the book plays like fictionalized biography, from Carter's wealthy childhood in San Francisco, California, to his journeys with a traveling vaudeville show (watch for a cameo by the Marx Brothers) and his rise to stardom.

Then, with the introduction of a few real-life characters -- including the man who knows what's in the cigar tube -- the book takes a sharp left turn into pure, rollicking fiction, complete with a die-hard Secret Service man, a boisterous, perils-of-Pauline magic performance and a neat twist ending.

It would seem to make a great movie, and Gold acknowledges he's had some interest from Hollywood. But, as a person who was born in Tinseltown and spent some time "flogging screenplays" back in the 1980s, he's not going to do a Houdini-like job of holding his breath.

"I've learned my lesson," he says. "I cannot hear somewhat good news. I've said (to my agent) to only call when something's solid."

In the meantime, he's become a big fan of magic, and magicians have become big fans of him.

In fact, Gold was recently invited to a magic history conference. "I was the first speaker, in a room with 250 magicians," he says. "And all of them wanted to know: 'How did you do it?' "

You'd think magicians would know better. A writer never gives away his secrets.


• Hyperion Books
• Hyperion: 'Carter Beats the Devil' game

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