In her new novel, writer Elizabeth Hand takes her readers back to Chicago’s Riverview amusement park in 1915 for a thrilling ride though a house of horrors. Dazzlingly versatile in style, format and subject matter, Hand has previously written modern noir, apocalyptic horror and visionary science fiction, to name just a few genres. Her decision this time to tell a tale of early film making, gender identity, surrealistic art and serial murder is ambitious indeed.

Cover courtesy of Mulholland Books

“Curious Toys” proves that Hand, a part-time Maine resident and University of Southern Maine Stonecoast MFA program writing instructor, is more than up to the task.

The protagonist of “Curious Toys,” is 14-year-old Pin, relocated with her single mother from the slums of Chicago’s Little Sicily to a precarious shack on the Riverview grounds. Pin’s mentally challenged younger sister Abriana disappeared while in the older girl’s care, and their mother, Gina, a fortune teller at the amusement park, is taking no chances with her remaining child. To keep Pin safe, she orders the girl to use the surname Maffucci and always dress as a boy. The subterfuge works well enough for Pin to run with the teenage gangs who roam the park and to perform errands for Max, the “She-Male” sideshow artist who displays her supposedly bifurcated body for paying customers.

Her adopted male identity allows Pin a mobility that young girls then simply could not otherwise enjoy. Hand writes, “But no one blinked to see a white boy the same age sauntering the Golden Mile, or ducking in and out of the theaters, or Barney Grogan’s illegal saloon, hands in his pockets and a smart mouth on him if you looked at him sideways.”

Pin finds herself fascinated by certain adult women, including female aviators and actresses. Her goal is to grow up and become a cameraman at nearby Essanay Studios, where she delivers contraband to Lionel, one of the scenarists who devises stories for silent movies.

One day, Pin watches as a man in a boater hat and an ice cream suit escorts a girl who looks to be 12 or 13 onto the Hell Gate dark ride. When the man emerges, he is alone, with no sign of the girl. Pin later searches inside the ride and discovers her body, igniting a powder keg of fear and speculation.

Pin is not the only witness. An agitated little man named Henry Darger, a janitor at a local hospital, also saw the presumed abductor and the girl enter Hell Gate. A self-appointed guardian of endangered girls, Darger is alarmed at the possibility that a child killer is on the loose at Riverview. His initial encounter with Pin is frightening for both of them, given Darger’s tendency to utter nonsense phrases that sound threateningly violent.

The supporting cast includes a number of other vivid personalities. Blackballed cop Francis “Fatty” Bacon works on the amusement park’s police force, and is one of the few adults to take Pin seriously (and to show romantic interest in her mother). As she investigates the murders, Pin develops a flirtatious friendship with an actress named Gloria, who seems to have all the confidence Pin feels she lacks.

Charlie Chaplin makes an appearance, touring the Essanay facility and exhibiting too much interest in the barely pubescent actresses. Those scenes do not advance the mystery plot very much, but they serve as respites from the ratcheting suspense.

The secret hero of “Curious Toys” is another true-life figure, Henry Darger, the untrained folk artist, who after decades of living in poverty and obscurity would be revealed to have written a collection of densely illustrated manuscripts of more than 15,000 pages, often devoted to brutal depictions of young girls being assaulted. Hand uses Darger sparingly in the novel, hinting at his artistic genius in small increments, which is the correct tack to take with someone so bizarre and often grating. Too bad that some of his work could not be included in “Curious Toys,” but readers should take the time to visit The Official Henry Darger website, officialhenrydarger.com, for insight into his life and art and how his biography meshes with the themes of the novel.

Amusement parks are generally rich settings for murder and mayhem. Think Stephen King’s“Joyland” or “Slayground” by Donald Westlake, writing as Richard Stark. Places like Riverview both attract and repel us, offering a bit of sleaze gussied up with some cheap effects. Hand gets the details exactly right, finding the tawdry magic that animates such venues, but striking a balance between her research and the narrative momentum of the novel.

She vividly conjures up an era when women and girls were regarded as poseable objects, and the serial killer main plot certainly hammers that theme home. By stealing items of their clothing, the culprit turns his victims into dolls, a behavior that provides a motive of sorts for the killings.

By the end of the novel, Pin is able to imagine other possibilities for her life beyond Riverview, that she’s free to travel off the paths prescribed for women and girls. She’s a remarkable young sleuth, a character who seems familiar – the girl detective – but proves to be a unique creation. “Curious Toys” is a thriller to be savored – tough, funny, strange and revelatory.

Berkeley writer Michael Berry is a Portsmouth, New Hampshire, native who has contributed to Salon, the San Francisco Chronicle, New Hampshire Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and many other publications. He can be contacted at:

[email protected]


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