“It’s a bad old world for young girls,” a sideshow entertainer observes in the breathless final pages of Curious Toys, the latest whipsmart thriller from Elizabeth Hand. That declaration would ring true even if the novel didn’t concern the serial murder of young girls in the early twentieth century. Sensing this, Pin, Hand’s fourteen-year-old protagonist, has been dressing and passing as a boy for years, with the encouragement of her mother, a fortune-teller at Chicago’s Riverview amusement park.
Boyishness allows Pin the freedom to lark about Riverview and the city beyond in the summer of 1915, running nickel errands for a weed dealer and seizing the chance to study the movie cameras and flirt with the actresses at Chicago’s booming Essanay Studios. Boyishness allows her the convenience of short hair and pockets, plus the confidence that she’s much less likely to be preyed upon – after all, the first time we see her at Essanay, Charlie Chaplin himself is hoisting young beauties onto his lap and whispering into their ears. And then there’s the tickling certainty inside her that she can’t quite face, yet: Simply put, she enjoys being a boy, feeling like a boy, looking at girls like a boy would.
Pin suggests Dickens’ Pip, of course, and a grubby parade’s worth of other literary urchins on the make. She’s an American, Chicago born, but it’s only when passing as a boy that she can even conceive of harboring great expectations, of marshaling her skills and guile to seize a piece of the new century for herself. All that means that when she sees a man and a young girl enter Riverview’s spookhouse tunnel-of-love attraction together – and then sees the man come out alone – Pin can’t turn to the police. Drawing any official attention to herself could prove disastrous to her project of passing. Instead, certain that the young girl has been murdered, Pin must venture into the Hell Gate boat ride herself.
What she finds there, in the dark, I’ll leave you to discover. But I’m happy to spoil the fact that Hand, a genre-hopping master of dark suspense, writes the holy hell out of the scene. She’s attentive to the brackish water, the pop-up skeletons, the fact that most of the adults in the boats around Pin are in the throes of a rare moment of private intimacy. As strangers grind and moan, and an actor dressed as Satan prepares to terrify them, Pin searches for a dead girl that might have been her.
Hand makes the Hell Gate a richly layered study of horror and sin, sex and truth, American piety and American reality. But she does so without fuss or strain, glancing up against the big ideas so gently that, as Pin bumps along in her little boat, readers can feel like we’re the ones coming up with them. She has crafted Curious Toys as a tense, short-chaptered contemporary thriller, the kind where you might think “I’ll read just two more pages” and then catch yourself having gulped down twenty. Yet like Pin herself the novel is something much more complex than it at first might appear.
Over the course of a career that has seen her winning multiple Nebulas, World Fantasy Awards, and Shirley Jackson Awards, Hand has pared down her wordcounts while still saying everything that needs to be said. Early novels like the suburb cults-on-campus gothic Waking the Moon or the lush Winterlong trilogy tend toward, while her recent books, such as the harrowing Cass McNeary crime series, is whetted like a shiv. Hand doesn’t say less these days, but she suggests more. Every detail is telling; every scene essential; every theme nudged toward readers to think about for ourselves.
As Curious Toys follows its small batch of point-of-view characters – Pin; the killer; an amusement-park cop; a hospital janitor and artist who keeps newspaper photos of dead girls in his pockets – nobody in the book has time to hold forth on The Times That They Live In, the way (to pick a clear precedent) Caleb Carr’s alienist might.
Yet the frisson of surprise insights is as reliable a pleasure here as the suspense plotting. As often in Hand’s work, they arise when her characters connect with their cultural preferences. They come when Pin studies the photo that she keeps of the aviator Harriet Quimby or when she gushes that she loves D.W. Griffith’s 1910 Mutoscope short “The House With the Closed Shutters,” about a young woman who dons the soldiers’ clothes of her brother, a coward, to deliver a message to Robert E. Lee. They come when Pin worries that dwelling too often on a happy memory might wear it out, “the way that film reels decayed after being played day by day.” They come when some of Hand’s dreamers and misfits get revealed to be not just her invention but real-life historic figures. They hit hard when Pin, representative of the first generation to grow up beneath the influence of mass media, does find a breath to think through one of the book’s rare declarative truths: “People only remembered you if you someone took your photograph to paint your picture, or used your face to sell soda or magic tricks. Everyone else was forgotten. Everyone else just died.”
But rather than dwell on that, she’s up and running. She’s said just enough – she has a murderer to stop and a century to seize.
Read our interview with Elizabeth Hand here.
By Elizabeth Hand
October 15, 2019
Elizabeth Hand is the author of more than fourteen novels and collections of short fiction. Her work has received the Shirley Jackson Award, the World Fantasy Award, the Nebula Award, as well as the James M. Tiptree Jr. and Mythopoeic Society Awards. She’s a longtime critic and contributor of essays for the Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, Salon, Boston Review, and the Village Voice, among many others.