I discovered the novel CURIOUS TOYS via a ‘most exciting upcoming horror novels in 2019’ post and was immediately gripped by the fact that it took place in 1915 Chicago and featured carnival workers. Buy me a ticket for that ride!
Upon reading it, it brought back memories of Lauren Beukes’ THE SHINING GIRLS (finally being realized as an Apple TV+ mini-series after many setbacks, under the title SHINING GIRLS). Both take place in old Chicago, both feature a predatory serial killer who kills young girls/women, and both have far more to say about women living in Chicago than to be victims, and both are well-worth your time.
(That said, CURIOUS TOYS isn’t nearly as high-concept as THE SHINING GIRLS, but to explain why would wade into spoiler territory, and I’ve digressed enough.)
CURIOUS TOYS starts off in Little Hell, a.k.a. Little Italy, a section of Chicago mostly ruled by the ‘Black Hand’ mafia. If you’ve seen CANDYMAN (the original — I can’t vouch for the latest as I have yet to see it) then you’ve seen the locale of Little Hell, as the Cabrini-Green projects were built there. If you’re wondering, Little Hell was named that because of the monstrous industrial factory there that lit up the horizon like a nightmare, and was often used by the Black Hand to incinerate bodies.
14-year-old Pin is a young, headstrong, burgeoning but confused queer girl, moved from Little Hell to live in a shack on the Riverview Park carnival, passing the summer until Pin can enrole in high school. Her stern, young mother has wrangled a job as a fortune teller, and dresses Pin as a boy ‘just until it’s safe.’ Pin does odd jobs for the ‘She-Male’ carnival performer Max (barkers declare him as ‘half-man/half-woman’), mostly delivering drugs to Chicago’s nascent film production studios, including screenwriter Lionel who works at Essanay Studios, which briefly produced many of Chaplin’s early films.
One day, Pin witnesses a girl a few years younger than her jump in a boat for the ‘Hell Gate’ water ride with an older man. She sees the man return solo, and she investigates the ride and finds the dead girl’s body.
What follows is a trifurcated detective fiction story, featuring real Chicagoan outsider artist Henry Darger — who has tasked himself with overseeing the girls in Riverview Park — and ex-detective, current Riverview Park muscle Francis Bacon (no relation to the artist), and Pin trying to track down this killer of girls.
Despite the fact that author Elizabeth Hand lives primarily in Maine and London, this is a surprisingly in-depth historical detective fiction novel that does right by Chicago. I’m familiar with the Riverview Park because of the old Riverview Tavern that was located by Roscoe & Damen. The Riverview Tavern not only had great burgers, but they also had a ton of Riverview Park memorabilia artfully placed around the significantly sized pub. (Sadly, they closed a few years ago. Hopefully they found a good home for the memorabilia.) While the Riverview Park was centrally located at Roscoe & Western, it took up a surprisingly large area of northern Chicago while it was active, until it closed in the mid 1960s.
As you may have guessed by some of the quoted terminology used above, some elements of this story may be problematic. I can’t go into most of them without delving into spoilers, but I believe Elizabeth Hand does attempt to contextualize them, but I feel the need to note it. (I’m not the only one to question this: if you aren’t afraid of spoilers, see https://www.npr.org/2019/10/20/771315664/curious-toys-gets-itself-into-unnecessary-trouble )
That aside — and that’s a pretty big unspoken matter to set aside but, chances are, if you’re reading this and would be upset by it, you know what I’m talking about — it’s an exacting, thrillingly, plotted tale about the city I hold dear, and the city I love to learn about, and I especially appreciated the epilogue, but I wish the author had handled the crux of the book differently.
If you’d like to know more: Chicagoan mystery novelist Lori Rader-Day (UNDER A DARK SKY, -also- well-worth your time, and the author of the upcoming DEATH AT GREENWAY) interviewed her during the CURIOUS TOYS press tour.