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Pulling history out of a hat

Glen David Gold tells the story of Carter the Great and America

Vaudeville is back. But don't look to the stage; look to the page. For the second time this month, the curtain is rising on a delightful novel about entertainment before television and movies. First, Elizabeth McCracken played the straight man in "Niagara Falls All Over Again," the story of a Laurel and Hardy comedy team. Now - shazam! - Glen David Gold has revealed "Carter Beats the Devil," an enormous historical novel about an early 20th-century magician.

Although he's since vanished from the cultural memory (poof!), Charles Carter, who billed himself as "Carter the Great," amazed audiences during the same time Harry Houdini was escaping from handcuffs and safes. (The book jacket reproduces a typically garish poster for one of Carter's shows in the 1920s.)

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Gold opens his debut novel with the death of President Harding. As the nation mourns, an investigation begins, starting with the magic show he attended the night before his passing. Aides knew their commander in chief was unwell and burdened by a horrible secret, but he had seemed so full of life when he volunteered for one of Carter's grand illusions.

Allowing the president to participate in an act involving fire, guns, knives, cannons, and lions - ending with his dismemberment - seemed like a bad idea to Secret Service agent Jack Griffin. Having accidentally assisted President McKinley's assassin, Griffin is loath to take the rap for another presidential death, but Harding had insisted.

The next day, as the news of his death spreads, Carter disappears, Harding is cremated, and his widow destroys a trove of evidence detailing more scandals than Bill Clinton could deny in eight years. Griffin finds himself battling his own department and a shadowy group of corporate thugs to track down the president's killer and his "horrible secret."

But no sooner do we see these acts of mayhem, magic, and mystery, than Gold whisks us back to Carter's childhood in San Francisco, recreated here in brilliant detail. "From the moment Charles Carter the Fourth first learned it," Gold writes, "magic was not an amusement, but a means of survival." Actually, Carter's struggle was more for identity than survival. His wealthy parents loved him, but had no time for him. Nevertheless, his mother conveyed a smattering of the new Freudian psychology and a large dose of appreciation for melodrama, tools more crucial to the future "Weird Wonderful Wizard" than any wand or rabbit.

Assured that their son will head off to Yale in the fall, his parents send him touring as a Vaudeville magician. While Houdini is making $5,000 a week, Carter is "devoured by fleas, his earnings are regularly stolen, and he returns to California smelling like a smoldering cheroot." Naturally, "he loved every moment of it."

He finally gets a small part in a show led by Colonel Mysterioso, a mustached villain so wonderfully classic that the book seems to shift into jerky black and white whenever he appears. (Keep an eye on his hideous little bald dog, too.) He stares daggers, tortures animals, and treats Carter with utter contempt.

What's worse, he rules over Annabelle, "the most fantastic furious female fighter ever to be tamed." During the show, she takes on a group of angry Indians. "The crowd had never seen a woman who could fight before. They went wild." To Carter, whose "most fragile prop was his heart," she's captivating - but forbidden.

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In a gambit to vanquish his foe with a wicked act of humiliation, Carter devises a lavish stage trick called "Blackmail." Naturally, I can't give away the secret (Rule No. 1), but eventually, he beats Mysterioso, weds Annabelle, and enjoys performing with her around the world.

Ah, but keep your eye on Gold's sleight of hand, ladies and gentlemen. When Carter's happiness is cut tragically short by a trick gone awry, he falls into the dark side of his trade, devising morbid, ambiguous illusions that leave audiences more unsettled than amazed.

Nothing can cheer him or save his show until he meets a blind woman named Phoebe, who lives in a home for wayward girls funded by Francis Smith, the Borax millionaire and an early fan of Carter's. This is a sweet romance, drawn with charm and wit. He's distracted by guilt, but a woman who can't see his illusions is the perfect person to perceive the good man he really is.

Too bad their happiness arrives as government and corporate assassins move in to bring the curtain down. Carter finds himself at the center of a scheme to gain control of a magical new technology that will transform the world (and ruin dinnertime). How can he possibly escape from this death-defying ordeal? As a real Carter poster once boasted, stay tuned for "marvels that obfuscate the will, charm the imagination, confound intelligence!"

In the tradition of E.L. Doctorow's "Ragtime," Gold weaves the rich history of this period through his own stagecraft, creating a novel worthy of the hype that announced those great Vaudeville magicians. This was, after all, a time of perpetual gasping at new scientific and consumer miracles. Behold - the X-ray! The vacuum cleaner! Carter and his colleagues levitated along that shifting line between fantasy and reality.

In a book full of conjurers, Gold emerges as the best magician of all, pulling surprises out of his hat throughout this wildly entertaining story, which captures America in a moment of change and wonder. The third and final act alone is worth the price of admission, but I'd rather face the devil himself than reveal any details about that part of the show.

Ron Charles is the Monitor's book editor. Send e-mail to charlesr@csmonitor.com.