This is the story of a magician’s life something aligns to a magic trick in itself. Amidst a murder mystery, two romances, and several subplots, the reader is constantly moved to wonder how much of the story is factual and how much the novelist’s creation. Gold’s novel takes an ambitious look at the turn of the century American entertainment, incorporating historical figures such as the Marx brothers, Harry Houdini, and the inventor Filo Farnsworth, along with details of life on the Vaudeville stage, the beginning of radio advertising and the advent of television. Along the way Charles Carter’s sleight-of-hand tricks and his more ambitious illusions are described in historically accurate detail.
The central mystery of the novel involves the death of the president Warren G Harding. Harding has spoken often of knowing a terrible secret, his notoriously corrupt administration must have made him privy to many scandalous secrets, but now he seems eager to reveal just one of them. Harding attends a performance by the famous magician Charles Carter, known as “Carter the Great” volunteering to be killed and dismembered in the notorious third and final act where “Carter beats the devil” Although the performance ends with the president emerging triumphantly in one piece, a few hours later he is, in fact dead.
No autopsy is performed on the president at his wife’s request, but the United States Secret Service suspects foul play and begins an investigation focusing on Carter as prime suspect. The Secret Service agents believe Carter’s illusory killing of the president must somehow be linked with the mans actual death. The magician denies any special knowledge of President Harding’s “secret” or his death.
Once the prologue seems to have established the story as a murder mystery, the novel continues with three sections, each covering a different time period and named after one of the three acts at Carter’s stage show. Each is prefaced with a black and white vintage poster from the era advertising the feats of famous magicians who performed during Carter’s time. The novel proves itself to be more than a mystery; it is actually more of a panoramic adventure tale.
The novels first section, “metamorphosis,” returns to Charles Carter’s childhood to show how he became fascinated with magic and to trace his rise as a professional magician. The mystery of what really happened to Harding is set aside and the reader is introduced to Charles Carter as a boy. The Young Charles is simultaneously fascinated and repelled by a collection of art prints in his father’s study showing antique torture devices. Charles questions his father about the billboes, pillory, and brank, in each case wondering how difficult it would be to extract oneself from the device. Charles’s first encounter with sleight- of-hand is depicted, when a side show giant takes one of his father’s collectable coins from him and makes it disappear. The giant has a mysterious, and to Charles, frustrating power. Charles has no means to extricate himself from a bad situation; he can neither retrieve the rare nickel from the giant nor avoid his father’s displeasure at its loss.
When a blizzard traps Charles and his brother James alone for several days in their parent’s home, they find among their father’s books “the magicians manual of legerdemain” by Professor Ottowa Keyes. Charles believes he can learn to perform the sleight-of-hand illusions described in the book. After much practice, Charles decides to perform his first magic trick for Jenks, the family gardener. Summoning the taciturn Jenks to the house, Charles takes a quarter dollar from him and makes it disappear. The gardener is enraged when his wealthy employers two spoiled children make his money disappear, and in a horrifying revenge hauls them to the basement where, astonishingly, Charles’s Father keeps an actual set of torture devices, bilboes, a pillory, and a brank. The gardener imprisons James and Charles in the devices and leaves them. Charles is able to escape, but his victory is short lived: His father sympathises with Jenks and forces Charles to offer his tormentor an apology. Rather than abandoning magic after this experience, the young Charles continues to hone his skills at sleight of hand. For Charles, magic has become a means of having power and a means of escape.
Charles’s parents send him to a private school where he will be groomed for a position in politics or industry. Charles instead spends his days studying the anatomy of hands and fingers and how they may be used to perform card and coin tricks. While at school, Charles meets Borax-Smith, the wealthy founder of the Twenty Mule Team Borax Company, who will be his lifetime friend and foe. Smith admires Charles’s sleight-of-hand tricks and inspires him to begin performing in vaudeville. Carter travels with a vaudeville troupe during the summers away from school, performing sleight-of hand-tricks with cards and coins and scarves, eventually postpones college for a chance to perform with the Keith-Orpheum “circuit” one of the best vaudeville troupes of the day.
Carter longs to be one of the magicians who performs great illusions, but he cannot afford to build or rent the necessary equipment and feels his ideas are poor. On the Keith-Orpheum circuit carter meets Mysterioso, a cruel and disdainful magician who nonetheless performs amazing feats. Mysterioso’s signature illusion involves hand to hand combat between his assistant Annabelle and several savages, after which the victorious Annabelle subdues a live lion. Mysterioso loses no opportunity to bully and humiliate Carter; a mere “card and coin man” Carters breakthrough comes when he develops an astounding illusion solely to revenge himself against Mysterioso. It is the first great illusion Carter performs on the stage, and it is wildly successful. Unfortunately, Carter is fired from the Keith-Orpheum circuit because the trick is so specifically designed to torment Mysterios, it cannot be performed again.
Carter bad luck turns immediately when Harry Houdini, the master magician and escape artist, attends Mysterioso's next performance, denounces the older magician, and declares to the audience that Carter is the finer performer. On the strength of Houdini’s recommendation carter replaces Mysterioso as the circuit headlining act. In time Carter transforms himself from a card and coin man on a lower level vaudeville circuit to an undeniably talented and original magician who fills theatres with his own full length performances. However, he has made a lifelong enemy of the almost psychotically cruel Mystrerioso.
In “Metamorphosis” Carter also falls in love with Sarah Annabelle Bernhardt, Mysterioso’s two fisted assistant. Any man on the vaudeville circuit fool enough to approach Annabelle is left with a bruise, black eye, or broken arm to show for it. Carter never incurs Annabelle’s wrath because he never reveals his interest in her; she confesses her love for him only after spying on him in a brothel and witnessing his rejection of all the prostitutes in favour of a lone nap on the sitting-room sofa.
The novels second section “An enquiry into the spirit world” is packed with meandering and increasingly complex melange of plot and subplot. Intricacies of plot and the introduction of multiple supporting characters direct the readers attention away from President Harding’s possible murder, almost as a magician directs his audience to concentrate on one object while manipulating another.
In the beginning of this second section, the novel digresses into the story of Jack Griffin, a secret agent whose promising career was reduced to ashes when he failed to prevent President McKinley’s assassination. Griffin was never again given great responsibility but has tenaciously kept his job, unwanted in the service but always hoping somehow to prove himself. Now he sees nabbing Carter for Harding’s murder as the key to resurrecting his career and his dignity.
While Griffin pursues Carter, Carter’s first wife Annabelle is accidentally killed during a rehearsal for a new illusion, and on a subsequent world tour, Carter’s ship is attacked by pirates. Carter retires from performing, spending much of his time with Borax Smith, who has opened a home for wayward women, Carter also meets Phoebe Kyle, a blind woman who will become his second wife, and he is attacked again, this time by secret service agents who test his abilities as an escape artist so thoroughly they nearly kill him. Meanwhile, the young inventor Filo Farnsworth has come to San Francisco seeking backers to help him build a new moving picture device – he calls it “television” and Carter becomes embroiled in the race to own a use Farnsworth’s invention. The many plots and subplots serve as further misdirection, focusing attention on other events until the magician- the author - is ready to reveal the secret of President Harding’s death, a drama that has unfolded in the meantime somewhere off stage.
As a child, Carter feels sure that he will be good at “not panicking,” a key talent for any magician, and as an adult he approaches every trial – whether he is captured by pirates at sea or sealed in a crate and tossed into the San Francisco Bay by alarming bunch of secret service thugs, with an aplomb that borders on the supernatural. Carter even advertises the use of television in a new show before having the blue prints for building a television, having a plan to obtain the plans and build one at the last possible minute.
Carter is a reluctant romantic, falling deeply in love first with Sarah Annabelle Bernhardt and, after Annabelle’s tragic death, with Phoebe, but his passion for Annabelle is more evident through his initial outward lack of interest in her (he feels strongly about this that he notes it in his diary) and in his grief after her death than when they are actually together. Carter also remains a somewhat distant character throughout the novel. His parents obviously love him dearly, even when he cannot meet their expectations, and he has the loyalty and friendship of his younger brother and his long time set builder Ledocq. Beyond these few individuals, however, Carter keeps to himself. His occasional flashes of humour are unexpected because he is not evidently a charming or engaging man, but more often taciturn and withdrawn, unwilling to reveal much to his associates and seemingly unaware of much that happens around him.
The final section of “Carter Beats the Devil,” is also the name of the final act in Carter’s stage show, when the “Devil” competes with the magician as each tries to create the most spectacular illusion. As Carter escapes spectacularly from his human enemies - first the unscrupulous secret Service agents and their suspicions surrounding Harding’s death, and then the evil Mysterioso - Carter ultimately wins victory over his emotional devils, including the fear of being trapped, his isolation and his grief.