Review of Curious Toys by Elizabeth Hand

From the decadent, dystopian science fiction of her debut novel, Winterlong; to the immersive magic of her art world fantasies like Mortal Love; to the harsh, earthy, crystalline landscapes of her Cass Neary suspense novels; Elizabeth Hand’s ouevre is as dark, sensuous and edgy as anything out there.

I keep a copy of Hand’s short story collection, Errantry, beside my desk to give me something to aim for with my own fiction. It’s a bar so high that not many writers reach it more than a few times in their lifetimes, but Elizabeth Hand has pretty much resided there throughout her 20+ book career-to-date.

So when I received an advance reading copy of her upcoming book, Curious Toys through a Goodreads draw, I was over the moon. After reading it obsessively over the next few days, and raving about it to friends, family and co-workers, I have finished it, thought about it, and am ready to declare it one of her best.

In this convincing evocation of early 20th century Chicago, 14 year old Pin, a girl who lives her life as a boy, resides in a shack with her mother, who works as an amusement park fortune teller. A peripheral member of a gang of boys that works out of the amusement park, Pin delivers dope for Max, the carnival’s half-man, half-woman, on a route that includes Essanay Movie Studio, where Charlie Chaplin and Wallace Beery are among the stars. When Pin uncovers a murder of a young girl on one of the attractions, the wrong person gets charged, and there is only one other witness to help Pin set things right – an exceeding strange, child obsessed young man named Henry Darger (yes, the outsider artist, not all that long after his release from the notorious Illinois Asylum for Feeble-Minded Children) who is eager to become Pin’s partner in solving the crime. But Darger’s behaviour has Pin wondering whether he is really a witness – or is actually implicated in the crimes.

As more murders follow, the tension grows – and Pin is in the centre of everything – not just the child murders themselves, but the mutual attraction between her and a young actress named Glory; the strained relationship with her mother, complicated by her budding relationship with ex-cop/amusement park guard Francis “Fatty” Bacon; and the erratic, pedophilia tinged behaviour of Darger. 

Although set in 1914, Curious Toys is very much a novel of our time. Sexual ambiguity is an important and effective motif that runs from beginning to end of the book, heightening the resonance and poignancy of everything that occurs.

Evocative, multilayered, exciting, and accessible to fans of mysteries, thrillers, historical fiction and anyone looking for a great read, Curious Toys could be a break-out 30 years in the making. At the very least, Liz Hand should win another bucketful of awards – maybe even a Lambda this time.

Get the scoop on Dale L. Sproule's new novel, The Human Template at https://dalelsproule.com.

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