Thursday, November 14, 2019

Curious Toys by Elizabeth Hand

Wow. This was one weird book. And weird not in a bad way, but weird in holy buckets! This was not at all what I expected. However, I am so very happy I read it. Definitely something out of my comfort zone. 

I was prepared for a fairly straightforward thriller/murder mystery. But it really is more than that. Curious Toys is set in Chicago in the summer of 1915. Most of the action takes place at the Riverview Amusement Park. Thousands of folks come to the park every day to drink beer, try their luck at rigged games, see the titillating shows, and ride the roller coaster. Pin, a young fourteen year old, spends each day running around the park, looking for loose change, running errands, and trying to stay out of trouble. Pin is actually a young girl, but her mother has insisted Pin cut her hair and dress as a boy as a form of protection against the men and boys who would harass her and, quite honestly, probably sexually abuse her, given the rough crowds at the park. Most importantly, Pin's mother wants to protect Pin after her younger daughter wandered off and disappeared two years before, never to be seen again. No one at the park knows Pin is actually a girl, and she likes it that way just fine. 

There's something dark underlying the basic crumminess of the park, and that is a serial killer, preying on young girls. One has been found inside the Hell Gate ride by none other than Pin herself--who began nosing around when she spotted a man entering the ride with a young girl, and later, stepping out of the boat at the end of the ride all by himself. Where did the girl go? To Pin's horror, the girl was murdered and left inside the dark ride, carelessly tossed aside by the killer. 

The reader also gets a glimpse inside the killer's mind, as we follow him on his quest to keep adding to his count. He's one twisted man; obsessed with dolls and girls and oh geez--what a muddle of weirdness. The question, of course, is who is the killer? And while I thought I had it figured out, I didn't. There are all sorts of unstable male characters in this tale, and each of them is, in one way or another, interested in young girls. The young film industry that is flourishing in Chicago adds fuel to the flames; grown women were picked for film roles based solely on their ability to look like little girls--young tweens. 

Anyway, I found this story to be both unsettling and oddly compelling at the same time. I couldn't stop reading; Pin is one tough young lady, and smart as a whip. The author's skillful writing had me smelling all the smells of a hot summer day at an amusement park, where air conditioning didn't exist, and folks weren't as shower fresh. The struggle for people like Pin's mother to escape poverty is very real, and painful to read; even a nickel became the difference between eating for a day or two or not eating at all. 

There's much more to this story--including the tale of Henry Darger, one odd duck who became famous for his works of art (which are actually in the American Folk Art Museum). He befriends Pin in the novel, and the two of them work to solve the mystery of the murders. 

I'd recommend this novel for anyone who wants to read a thriller/historical mystery, and a novel with a character who is struggling to understand their sexuality and their place in the world. It was a really good read, and I'm glad I picked it up. 

Rating: 4/6 for one compelling novel that combines great historic detail, mystery, thrills, and commentary on a society where the poor just didn't have a chance to ever get out of poverty. You'll definitely feel like you're in 1915 Chicago. 

Available in hardcover, ebook, and audio. 

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