I don’t know what it is. Amusement parks seem to provide a backdrop for a fair amount of drama and crime stories. Is it the anti-quotidian? Is it the closeness of fun thrills to horrific thrills? Or is it just the clowns, and all the fun and terror they bring to the table? Elizabeth Hand, in her 2019 Curious Toys, might argue it’s the bearded lady.
Curious Toys is the story of Pin, a carnie living and working at the Riverside amusement park in Chicago in 1915. A lover of pulp magazines and their flair for adventure and drama, when a real life murder happens on one of the park’s rides Pin becomes a little curious and a small-time detective herself. When it happens again, she starts to worry for her life…
Hand keeping the detective aspect of the book as realistic as possible, at no time does Pin become Nancy Drew or Angela Lansbury chasing down clues in this week’s episode of a show. Period Chicago evoked as needed, and multiple point-of-view characters filling out the storyline, her quest to get to the bottom of the murders feels more organic than contrived, something Hand achieves through the realistic (vs. larger than life) aspects of the people in the story.
From the outset, Hand provides the reader a viewpoint into the life of the murderer, though does keep their identity hidden. Actually a serial killer, the person has a fetish for young girls. After killing them, he takes their clothes and dresses a doll he keeps in a traveling suitcase, posing them for lewd photos in the aftermath. Creepy, yes, but Hand likewise uses the twisted idea to highlight certain aspects of mental illness, and when taken in conjunction with Pin’s questions surrounding her own sexuality, combine to offer a unique take on gender and identity.
Thus, despite that Curious Toys is set in the early 20th century, Hand still consciously triggers a couple of major points in modern culture wars. Firstly, Pin is a young person of uncertain gender. Born a woman, she sometimes feels more a man (but refers to herself as she), a fact she expresses by dressing as a young man, and is believed to be a boy by her peers at the carnival. Racial profiling another touch point, in the investigation of the crime, one of Pin’s co-workers, a young black man, is accused. And thirdly is the empowerment/disempowerment of women, in general. A lot having happened in the arena of gender equality since 1915, Hand highlights a couple of the major points that, in some fashion, remain today.
Hand does not beat the reader over the head with these themes. All white males are not portrayed as serial killing, child rapists. Non-binary people are not portrayed as victims of an oppressive, nationalistic society bent on eliminating them. And women are not portrayed as perpetual victims to social norms. The aspects of gender and race, while pointed out, are not commented upon indirectly by story, rather, Hand allows the nature of the setting and plot to unfurl as it will, the murder mystery the guiding light.
In the end, Curious Toys is a highly enjoyable novel that must first be taken as quality detective fiction, and secondly as representation of, not commentary on, critique of, or suggestions about social issues such as feminism, gender identity, and racism. Read too much into race, gender, etc., and the reader threatens to fail to appreciate the good job Hand has done interweaving a handful of well-drawn characters over a nicely depicted turn-of-the-century Chicago amusement park serial killer story. The illustration of issues does not always equate to something more. Take that as you will—a book review in 2019 that has to remind readers to stick with the story…