Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Elizabeth Hand knows it takes a bit more than the usual these days to stand out from the literary crowd, and in her novel Curious Toys she strives to accomplish this task. Taking us back to 1915, we follow a young fourteen-year-old daughter of a carnival fortune-teller who bands together with an iconic artist to track down and unmask a serial killer nobody seems to know about.
Table of contents
Elizabeth Hand Unleashes the Amusement Park Killer
With thriller novels being a dime a dozen these days I think we’ve reached a certain point of saturation where the perfectly average books and stories begin to blend in with each other. The genre’s popularity is also proving to be detrimental in a certain sense: the more people read it, the more authors write it, and the more we see ideas exhausted and cliches established. Thankfully, there are authors who inspire hope of there still being a good bit of originality left in the genre, and Elizabeth Hand is one such case with her novel Curious Toys.
Taking us all the way back to the summer of 1915, we are introduced to Pin, a fourteen-year-old girl, daughter of a caravan fortune-teller and general miscreant. The Riverview Amusement Park is more or less her home, and she even goes as far as dressing up as a boy and joining a teenage gang roaming around, looking for general trouble. However, as she is soon about to find out, the carnival is host to terrible individual nobody seems to have noticed somehow.
The fateful moment comes when Pin witnesses the strange man enter the Hell Gate with a young girl at his side, only to emerge out of it on his own. She may be young, but she understands something terrible has happened, and probably will happen time and time again… and the worst part is nobody cares.
Unable to let the matter rest, Pin follows the traces of the crime as best she can and ultimately makes the acquaintance of a troubled and iconic artist, Henry Darger. Together, they set out to uncover the identity of the devil building his empire of evil under the cover of the carnival’s mystifying play of lights and shadows.
The Monsters in the Dark Corners
While we may certainly have a thriller novel on our hands, I would like to draw your attention first to the historical aspect of it, which actually takes up a decent part of the author’s focus. I have personally never been to Chicago, much less visited it in 1915 when the story takes place, but after reading Curious Toys I can say I’ve come pretty close. The amount of research done by the author combined with her magnificent prose were the first things which, in my eyes, elevated Curious Toys far above the average level.
The story mainly takes place at the Riverview Amusement Park as well as the Essanay movie studio, and we become acquainted with the most intimate details and darkest corners of those places. Hand quite obviously takes a lot of pleasure in having us tour these locations, especially the carnival, describing the most minute intricacies and making use of all the reader’s senses. It shows she dedicated much of her time to studying this time period and the people inhabiting it, and in my opinion it paid off in the end.
While the plot itself was certainly engaging (more on this below), the exploration of the carnival felt like an overarching plot in and of itself. We never know what to expect every time we turn the corner or meet a twist in the road. From the brightest to the darkest corners, nothing escapes our watchful gaze and we become acquainted not only with the brilliance and glamour of the spotlights, but also the monsters hiding in the shadows. Indeed, Hand isn’t exactly trying to portray a beautiful fantasy land, but rather a real place which disguised human darkness with its dazzling opulence. Ultimately, it makes for an incomparable atmosphere I won’t soon forget.
On the Beast’s Trail
With the author having absolutely nailed the historical aspect of the story, I think it’s time we move on to the actual plot itself, almost entirely centred on the murder mystery of the serial killer. While Pin might be a teenage girl pretending to be a teenage boy, she is definitely wise beyond her years as a result of her relatively unstable upbringing as a fortune-teller’s daughter. She certainly acts more like an adult than a child, and while it may take you off-guard at first, I guarantee it won’t take long to get used to.
The actual investigation is solid in its own right, with the author clearly having taken the time to craft a long chain of clues and logic for us to follow from start to finish, with a few red herrings thrown in for good measure.
The plot moves along rather quickly, driven by a beautiful and linear prose where not a single word seems to be wasted. Also, I don’t say this very often, but the ending was definitely worthy of all the build-up until then and we are even treated to a satisfying wrap-up of the events with a final chapter taking place 62 years later. In an era of rushed endings and cliffhangers in hopes of sequels, the approach taken by Elizabeth Hand felt like a breath of fresh air.
For me personally, one of the funnest parts of the investigation was seeing all the people Pin was meeting on her journey, including the troubled artist Henry Darger, and the likes of immortally-famous figures such as Charlie Chaplin and Gloria Swanson.
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They all have their own intricate personalities and are worked sensibly into the story where they feel as much part of the world as any of the fictional people. These secondary characters add a lot of welcome variety and play a big part in ensuring we, the readers, never get bored even for a split second.
The Final Verdict
Curious Toys by Elizabeth Hand certainly shows the author to be a master of the historical thriller genre, offering an exciting, intellectually-stimulating and fast-paced murder mystery set in the exquisitely crafted world of 1915 Chicago. If you consider yourself to be a fan of historical murder mysteries and thrillers, then I’d say passing up on this novel would be a real sin.
Elizabeth Hand is an American writer from New York whose first story, Prince of Flowers was published back in 1988 in Twilight Magazine.
Her first novel, Winterlong, was published two years later in 1990. Following this she penned a number of prominent books throughout her career, including the cult series Anima, Glimmering, and Waking the Moon, which won the Tiptree Award as well as the Mythopoeic Fantasy Award.