Elizabeth Hand’s Curious Toys is a multi-layered historical thriller about a serial killer, carnival life, art and a conflicted young teen.
If you’re familiar with the 20th century “outsider” artist Henry Darger, you’re going to enjoy Lincolnville resident Elizabeth Hand’s latest, Curious Toys, a lot more than you would otherwise. If you’ve never heard of this enigmatic gentleman, it’s worth a few quick clicks of a Google search so it is easier to immerse yourself in this suspenseful and gender-bending work of historical fiction.
Set in the bustling Riverview amusement park in turn of the century Chicago, October release Curious Toys is a thriller about a murderer who preys on young girls. Thrust into the mystery is the tough-but-tender Pin, a 14-year-old who dresses and passes as a boy after her sister disappears, and Pin’s odd ally, Henry Darger. Henry tells Pin he is a detective with an agency that watches out for girls to keep them safe. (This is where it helps to know a little about the real-life Darger and his work.)
Historical fiction’s success hinges on the details and Hand, known for her cross-genre and often punk-infused work (she’s written more than a dozen novels, including Mortal Love and Wylding Hall) doesn’t miss a beat. From the glitz of the park and the fakery of the freaks to the gangs, pickpockets and assorted molesters that frequent Riverview, the reader is smack dab on a midway in 1915. Pin runs drugs for the Freak Show’s “She-Male,” delivering to an uptown movie studio peopled with wannabe starlets and frequented by a creepy Charlie Chaplin. When the murders start, people can’t help bringing up H.H. Holmes, the serial killer executed in their not-so-distant past. Holmes will be familiar to readers of Erik Larson’s novelistic nonfiction work Devil in the White City. Curious Toys has drawn favorable comparisons to Larson’s 2003 bestseller, including from Publishers Weekly.
While the weirdness of the carnival setting, a killer on the loose and the cryptic Henry make for a seductive tale on their own, Hand gifts us with the vulnerable but resilient Pin. Pin’s fortuneteller mother makes her dress as a boy for safety’s sake, but for Pin it is more than a disguise. “For as long as she could recall, this was all she’d wanted. When she remembered her dreams, she recalled being neither girl nor boy, only flying, nothing between her skin and the wind.”
She revels in the liberation, but she’s conflicted. While “(b)eing a boy meant freedom; being a man meant joining an army of monsters.” At the amusement park she sees “men everywhere, drunk or shouting, laughing as they pulled women around: onto the roller coasters, where the women would scream and cling to them; into the House of a Thousand Troubles, where fans would blow up the women’s skirts so you could see their drawers; on to the Witching Waves where men and women would be thrown against each other and the men could grab their breasts, pretending it was a mistake.” In this world of men, “nothing was safe, it was the only thing she knew to be true.”
But Pin lets down her guard to let Henry in. As the killing escalates, so does her involvement with him. His peculiarities, art and writings are revealed and we’re given Hand’s insights into his own gender-bending creativity. (He drew warrior girls with penises, for example.)
Hand, whose science fiction works have won Nebula Awards, seamlessly blends the darkness and light of these colorful characters from a different time into a rich and entertaining read, culminating in a most satisfying ending. It’s a lot, but, oh so curiously, it all works.
Amy Canfield, a Maine Women Magazine editor, is now a Henry Darger fan. She lives in South Portland.