Pin Maffucci wanders the midway and aisles of Chicago’s Riverview Amusement Park, running errands and delivering dope for Max, the carnival’s She-Male performer. At nearly fourteen, Pin is considered small for his age. That’s partly because Pin, with his trousers, cropped curls and cap, is really a girl in disguise. When a young woman from the nearby Essenay Film Studio is found murdered in one of the dark rides, Pin investigates, putting her own life at risk, and she has no idea who to trust.
Elizabeth Hand’s 2019 novel Curious Toys is an historical mystery set in 1915. There is no directly fantastical element, but the phantasms created by the human minds in this story shift it nearly into horror on more than one occasion. And while it’s not fantasy, the fantasies of an historical figure, well-known “outsider” artist Henry Darger, add a scintillating thread of fantasy throughout the story. Darger haunts the Baby Incubator display (a real thing; since hospitals refused to use incubators on premature babies, the inventor of the device displayed them at amusement parks, using their share of the gate to pay for the nursing care.) Because this is part of Pin’s everyday world, Hand never turns away from her story to explain it; it’s just one more perfectly placed detail… and it shows the reader that Henry, for good or bad, is fascinated with the vulnerable.
Pin’s mother has fled an abusive husband, who is probably a member of the Italian mob, changed their names, and is hiding in the amusement park, where she works as a fortune teller. She had two daughters. Her younger, Abriana, disappeared without a trace a few years ago, and that disappearance haunts Pin.
Curious Toys shifts across several points of view, the serial killer’s among them. Pin is a lively and unusual amateur detective; she’s attracted to girls and loves the freedom of boy’s clothes, and her youth is both an advantage, because she can go places without attracting attention, and an obstacle. She is sharp and adapts quickly, but she’s naïve. She loves the movie studio (where she delivers hashish to one of the screenwriters), and she is fascinated by elements of the huge amusement park. She has noticed Henry Darger in the carnival area several times, and when they meet, they are not instant soulmates or partners. Henry is mentally ill. His speech is strange, and he has violent impulses. The fragmented things he says to Pin makes it sounds like he has killed someone before, but the most disturbing thing about him are the newspaper pictures of missing girls, including Abriana. Darger tells Pin that he is part of a group called the Gemini Child Protective Society, but she doesn’t know whether she can believe him. And then another girl is attacked.
Hand’s attention to detail creates a three-dimensional, living background for this story. She follows fictional characters, like Max, the She-Male, and historical ones; Charlie Chaplin has a small role. The scents, tastes and visuals of Riverview are beautifully rendered. The misogyny and racism of the period are explored throughout the story. Hand doesn’t shy away from the film industry’s use of very young women or girls in their movies, and the parallel between the murder’s compulsion, to dress a large doll up in the trophy clothing of the dead girls, and the costumes and make-up used on the young actresses, is unavoidable. The book is filled with tropes that relate to image, identity, art, storytelling. Pin believes she is the hero of her story. Darger, who is in his twenties, seems about twelve years old in his understanding of the world. They are, at least, an unlikely pair of heroic detectives.
Darger used collage a lot in his art and illustrations, and Hand has structured Curious Toys, with its multiple points of voice and a few very short chapters (some only one paragraph long) like a collage.
Can Pin and Darger prevail against a killer who has murdered in more than one state? Won’t suspicion fall on them, or at least on Henry? Their situation is precarious, and I never once doubted that both Pin and Henry were in real danger.
The ending is positive, but it isn’t a conventional “happy ending.” Hand has a final point to make about how society treats boys and girls, and Pin discovers that she is not the hero, but “just a girl to be rescued.”
An unusual, historically detailed setting, lots of juicy bits about the early movie business, and strange, engaging main characters made Curious Toys a treat to read. It’s dark and scary, like a good carnival dark ride should be.