Carter Beats The Devil is one of those “real people in fictional narratives” pieces which are often tedious hack-jobs weaving fact and fiction. And they usually involve the death of President Kennedy. At least CBTD involves the death of a completely different president.

It is a twee little number in places. Being a Marx Brothers fan I picked up on the Fun In High Skule cameo (the Marx’s act as kids). However I was wholly unprepared for the villain of the piece to be a ripped off of Spider-Man . Glenn David Gold could have put his villainous conjurer Mysterioso’s resemblance to fishbowl bonced Mysterio down to coincidence if he had not thanked Stan Lee, Jack Kirby and Steve Ditko in the credits. That said, those comic book buggers are so litigious these days.

Carter Beats The Devil is one of those tube books that ruled about a year ago, and that in an uncharacteristic pique of anti-populism I rule out as being any good. I was (and am) wrong to do so. Thick enough for beach reading, an arresting cover and a faint smattering of award nominations, it is one part plot, one part history of magic. I have read at least two other books where Houdini rocks up as a major character, and here we have a rival/prot’g’ of his.

I do wonder though, how much of the charm of this book is due to the extensive research into the people, places and period and how much is good old fashioned making stuff up. The Marx Brothers cameo only plays to my vanity, finally reading that Groucho Marx biography was worthwhile. The whole thing could have been made up, rather than assiduously fit around actual facts and been just as interesting. But then research is a novelists badge of honour these days. Replace bad writing with spot on period detail and no-one can say you did not do the work. But then should art be work? Surely art is the opposite of work, when it become work trouble starts. Carter Beats The Devil, Art Beats Work – right?

The Brown Wedge