Curious Toys, by Elizabeth Hand
a review by Rich Horton
Elizabeth Hand is one of my favorite writers, but for reasons it's hard to parse, I had not read any of her novels. Well, in reality the reasons aren't so hard to parse -- I simply don't read as many novels as I should, in great part because I read so much short fiction. Also, Hand's recent novels have been crime novels -- and don't get me wrong, I like crime novels, and I have nothing against reading them, but I still concentrate on 1) science fiction; and 2) older novels. My wife, who reads a lot of mysteries, did read and enjoy two of Hand's recent books, both crime novels: Generation Loss and the book at hand, Curious Toys. As for me, the longest story I'd read by Hand was her utterly lovely long novella about the English folk revival (of which I'm a big fan anyway!) Wylding Hall. But her other short fiction is magnificent as well, stories like "Near Zennor", "The Maiden Flight of McCauley's Bellerophon", "Cleopatra Brimstone", "Chip Crockett's Christmas Carol", "Illyria", "The Least Trumps" ... and I could go on and on. I've known that I should read her novels for a long time -- her early Winterlong trilogy looks wonderful ...
So finally I pulled the trigger, with Curious Toys, from 2019. This novel is set in Chicago in 1915. The novel is primarily set at Riverview Park, an actual amusement park that operated from 1904 to 1967. (I grew up in the Chicago suburbs but I was just a bit too young -- the park formally closed two days before my eighth birthday -- to be aware of it.) There are many viewpoint characters but the book truly centers on Pin Maffucci, a 14 year old girl who dresses like a boy, partly because her mother wants to keep her safe, partly because that way she can more easily get odd jobs. But really because she likes it that way. Pin's main odd job is to run marijuana for one of the park's performers, a man who dresses as half woman/half man for his sideshow. One place she takes the drugs is to Essanay, a movie studio in Chicago, which suits her because she is infatuated with one of the young actresses there.
Pin has a back story -- her sister was abducted and (presumably) murdered a couple of years earlier. Her mother is now a fortuneteller at the park, having changed their name and left their previous home partly because of the violence of the Black Hand gang that controls their old neighborhood. It turns out that a security guard at Riverview Park is a former policeman, Francis Bacon, who lost his job when he dared stand up to the Black Hand, which had plenty of police and judges under their control. This policeman is another POV character. Another key character is a very strange man who Pin notices hanging around the park -- we learn soon that this is Henry Darger, now one of the most famous outsider artists in history. Henry is obsessed with protecting young girls from violence -- this gives him a tie to Pin (and her lost sister) -- but it also makes Pin suspicious of him.
The action is driven by the disappearance of a young girl in an underground water ride. Pin and Henry (separately) witness this girl enter the ride in the company of an adult man, and then the see the man leave alone. And Pin recognized the girl as another actress at the movie studio -- indeed, an actress Charlie Chaplin had taken a creepy interest in. At first no one believes Pin's story, but then the girl is found. And, depressingly, the first suspect is a black man who was working at the ride, even though there's no plausible reason to believe he committed the crime. Pin is pushed to do what she can to investigate ... and eventually she yields to Henry's insistence that he can help. Francis, as a security guard, is also investigating. Suspects eventually include Charlie Chaplin himself (who did seem to have an unhealthy attraction to just pubescent girls), as well as another of Pin's acquaintances, a scenarist at Essanay who wants to write dark and violent screenplays. And the questions arises -- is there a connection with the disappearance of Pin's sister? Or with the very young girl Henry is fascinated with? Or with other disappearances in different amusement parks?
The eventual solution to the murders is not really that interesting. We have been given glimpses of the murderer in action anyway -- and his identity is not that much of a surprise. What's really fascinating is the look at Chicago in 1915, and at Riverview Park. Also the characters -- Pin in particular, but Henry and Francis and Pin's mother and various minor characters are involving. Many of the characters, good and bad, are queer (each in their own way), and fully realized within a culture wholly different to today's. The look at silent movies in at this time is a tiny part of the book, but fascinating too, as are the peeks we get at other the other entertainments offered at the amusement park. There's a bit of an envoi, giving us a look at the futures for Henry (a matter of historical record, of course) and Pin, which serves as a striking bit of timebinding from the teens to the '70s, giving real perspective to the connections between, and differences between, 1915, 1970 (and, by implication, the present day, about as far from 1970 as that was from 1915.)