Curious Toys by Elizabeth Hand
The early 20th Century, creepy carnivals, gender-bending teenagers, outsider art: Rarely does a novel tick as many of my boxes on the back cover alone as Curious Toys by Elizabeth Hand. Set in a seedy, summertime amusement park in Chicago circa 1915, where a young girl is found murdered in the Hell’s Gate water ride, the setting lured me in from page one and the story kept me glued until the end. In other words, what a delicious little thriller!
Over the last several years and several cities, young girls have gone missing and some later found strangled, molested and their clothing removed — several of them inside rides at different East Coast amusement parks. The crimes go unconnected until this hot, sticky summer when our main character Pin witnesses a man and child enter Hell’s Gate and sees only the man return. The brave teenager then finds the body of the poor girl floating in the muck of Hell’s Gate and thereby places “himself” firmly in the center of a hot investigation.
Or at least, everyone assumes Pin is a “him.” Several interesting people lend voices to the story, but Hand created a real firecracker with this character, the daughter of the amusement park’s new fortuneteller who’s instead disguised as a son. Daughters, as the family discovered when Pin’s older sister went missing, are far too vulnerable in a big city like Chicago, especially when the family is headed by a single mother.
Therefore Pin binds her adolescent breasts and passes as a boy for protection — rather joyously, in fact, since the time period offered very little in the way of freedom to young women. Wearing pants, she has the run of the park and several little jobs, including running reefer up to the nearby film studio, where Pin happens to have a crush on an aspiring teenage starlet. Like me, I suspect most readers will crush hard on our bright, brave Pin, who is willing to risk her own life to catch a girl-killing monster, even as she’s afraid of being exposed as a girl. The mystery that unfolds in her wake is unpredictable, gripping and satisfying.
Pin’s partner in vigilantism, outsider artist Henry Darger, is equally compelling. Hand is reportedly known to depict artists on the page, and I am a confirmed rabid audience for such characters, doubly so when based on a real historical figure. The real Darger wrote a 15,000+-page manuscript, only fully revealed upon his death, which he also illustrated with images both horrific and fantastical. He’s considered one of the best examples of an outsider artist, and fictionalized into a partner in crime-solving, he and Pin make a fine pair.
Pin’s mother and the park policeman also feature, and both are intriguing but illustrate my main complaint about Curious Toys: its superficiality. Though I loved the setting and the twists of the mystery, none of the book’s characters were fully fleshed to my satisfaction. Even our protagonists, Pin and Henry, feel distant and wooden between spells of genuine internality. Granted, thrillers aren’t usually fertile ground for introspection or characterization, which can slow pace, but the best of the bunch can paint a character in depth without sacrificing tension and I felt that absence here.
Speaking of the best, while the novel has been hyped with comparisons to Carr’s The Alienist and Larson’s gripping non-fic Devil in the White City, I wouldn’t rank the quality of Hand’s prose as seen in these pages in that same weight class. Some lines of dialogue snap but plot is the driving force of the novel. Even if that plot is in my opinion solid gold, the novel doesn’t offer the same, stunning full-package of action and writing prowess. Instead, I’m left wanting a little more, perhaps to see how the story translates to another medium. I’d love to see this fascinating tale blown up and given heft one day as a film or series that might fill in the details I’m craving.
In the meantime, I’ll be recommending this fun novel to anyone who loves creepy carnivals and amusement parks or needs an eerie, compelling thriller to whisk them away from the world for a few hundred pages.