FOUR POINTS: Great books about actual magicians, not sorcerers

April 22nd, 2013 | Joe Hadsall | Filed Under Four Points


It happens to all of us: We go to the bookstore, or shop on the Internet, and look for books about magicians. Our search results disappoint us, though: We get “Harry Potter.” “The Magicians” by Lev Grossman. “Jonathan Strange and Mr Norrell,” by Susanna Clarke. “The Night Circus” by Erin Morgenstern.

Those are all great stories, but those are the wrong kind of magicians. We don’t want wizards, sorcerers and the kind of magic that some spell “magick.” We want our kind of magicians, the guys who practice their tails off, who perform for audiences and design miraculous illusions. THESE are our people, the ones who live lives knowing how to size up situations instantly, who go to great lengths in order to study arcane secrets.

The good news: There are many outstanding stories of the magicians you and I know. Some are even written by magicians. Here’s four worth hunting down:

“Carter Beats the Devil,” Glen David Gold

FOUR POINTS: Great books about actual magicians, not sorcerersYou’ve seen the Carter the Great posters in magic stores, but Glen David Gold brings the great one to life. Centered around the mysterious death of President Warren Harding, Carter is implicated and investigated by the FBI. What follows is a grand historical fiction featuring a number of well-known names, from Francis Marion “Borax” Smith to TV inventor Philo Farnsworth. Houdini and Howard Thurston also make appearances. And Gold’s writing is golden: The escapes he spins for Carter grow more and more impossible with each chapter.

“Magic,” by William Goldman

FOUR POINTS: Great books about actual magicians, not sorcerersKnown for “The Princess Bride” and “Marathon Man,” Goldman is no stranger to writing Hollywood-worthy stories, and “Magic” is no different (it was made into a movie starring Anthony Hopkins). After learning sleight of hand while bed-ridden in a hospital, Charles “Corky” Withers sought training by a top pro, but still lacked the courage to jump on stage. After finally summoning the courage to perform at an amateur night, the resulting response triggers a breakdown. That’s when the mannequin starts talking to him, and things spiral from there. Though reviewers don’t think of it as highly as his other works, “Magic” is a dizzying horror story that chills as much as it thrills.

“The Magician’s Assistant,” by Ann Patchett

FOUR POINTS: Great books about actual magicians, not sorcerersHow about some love for the assistants? Ann Patchett tells the story of Sabine, assistant to the magician Parsifal. The relationship is complicated, however — though her love for him is unrequited, he still marries her shortly before his death. In his death, Sabine discovers a world that he kept hidden from her. Though not as action packed as others on this list, Patchett gets a nod for weaving an interesting tale where an assistant is able to watch her magician grow young.

“Re-Deal,” by Richard Turner

FOUR POINTS: Great books about actual magicians, not sorcerersTrust an expert card mechanic to figure out how to get his main character to play poker with Doc Holliday and S.W. Erdnase, and not seem the least bit weird. Turner is well known for his excellent sleight of hand and his specifically-details Bicycle decks. But his fiction story about Matt McCain and his encounter with the angel Miss Guided shows he’s just as creative with a story as he is with a deck of cards.

Bonus point: “The Prestige,” by Christopher Priest

FOUR POINTS: Great books about actual magicians, not sorcerersEver wonder why Christopher Nolan’s movie was so good? He had great source material. The mysteries and double crosses reveal themselves slowly in “The Prestige.” Written as diary entries, the battle between Angier and Borden stays intense and solid, long after it is explored by the magicians’ offspring.

Those are our four — five, actually — picks. What did we miss? What’s your favorite story featuring a magician?

FOUR POINTS is a regular feature that celebrates magicians’ favorite number by highlighting four critical bits of importance, awesomeness or otherwise. Send your suggestions to joe@ellusionist.com.

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