(macOS/PC/PS4/PS5) VIRGINIA was the first game from Variable State, and it made quite the mark. Not only is it 100% dialogue-less but it frequently quits scenes, leaping forward in time and to different locations, even if you aren’t done interacting with them.

I’ll note that Variable State was inspired by the experimental indie game 30 FLIGHTS OF LOVING — they even included a special note in the credits to underscore what they owed to 30 FLIGHTS — which also jumps around in time and locations a lot.

While 30 FLIGHTS OF LOVING felt thrillingly chaotic, VIRGINIA is the other side of the coin.

VIRGINIA is a slow burn of a thriller. You play as Anne Tarver, a wet-behind-the-ears FBI agent whose partner is seasoned special agent Maria Halperin. The two of you are in Kingdom, Virginia, investigating the disappearance of a young boy named Lucas. Tarver then gets drawn deeper into FBI schemes, and matters escalate in a dreamline way.

(Unsurprisingly, the game also takes a few notes from TWIN PEAKS, as one location practically recreates the Roadhouse, even down to a Julee Cruise-ish backing band.)

I’ll note: this is essentially an experimental point-and-click adventure game, albeit first-person. While it is a ramshackle indie game, Terry Kenny’s simple but evocative art styling does a lot to imbue the spirit of the game, but the silence is what I find most intriguing. Occasionally, the game even lacks room tone — it’s dead silent. Everyone speaks with gestures and motions and physicality. It’s a glorious limitation to place on a modern narrative-forward game, one that makes VIRGINIA so memorable.

And when the game isn’t silent? When the score swells? It resonates volumes.

This isn’t a game for everyone. If you’re impatient, if you expect proper answers, if you want fire off a gun, this is not the game for you. However, if you’re looking for a surreal, atmospheric, story-driven mystery that isn’t the most interactive game ever, but looks and sounds great and can hit where it hurts, it’s a great Sunday experience.


(PC/PS4/PS5/Xbox) TWIN MIRROR is the most recent game from LIFE IS STRANGE developer Don’t Nod, and it certainly feels like one. It’s yet another narrative-forward interactive adventure game focused on character interactions, dialogue branches, story-changing decisions, escapism and fantasy via superhero elements, and traumatic deaths.

In fact, it eeriely mirrors the first LIFE IS STRANGE game in a number of narrative and mechanical ways, even down to the protagonist having ghosted their best friend for years, then returning to their hometown, and it essentially recreates the ‘high school dream sequence’ Max endures where you’re endlessly walking through hallways and doors.

While it doesn’t take place in the Pacific Northwest, it does take place in rural West Virginia, and even features similar sequences from LIFE IS STRANGE 2 such as road and forest exploration, as well as looking after a plucky but rebellious youth.

So, you could say Don’t Nod have more than a house style; they have a house template.

Let me rewind a bit.

TWIN MIRROR features middle-aged ex-investigative journalist washout Sam Higgs who, after being rebuffed by a marriage proposal to his co-worker Anna, abandoned his hometown after penning an expose of the town’s central mining industry, causing them to shutter and forcing many folks out of work.

He returns two years later to attend the funeral of his prior best friend and co-journalist Nick, who appears to have died in a car crash. Matters escalate, and dramatic intrigue sets in, and Sam only has Anna and a mysterious other to help him sort matters out.

What results is something that feels like an odd fusion of LIFE IS STRANGE, recent SILENT HILL games, and the Frogware Sherlock Holmes games. As mentioned earlier, it borrows a lot from LIFE IS STRANGE, but the bland, middle-aged protagonist, mining town, and guilt-obsession and illusionary characters feels very SILENT HILL, and the deduction puzzles are very Frogware. (Hell, they even include ‘Mind Palaces’.)

So, yeah, it’s an amalgamation that is perfect for me as I love all of those games, but perhaps not for everyone else.

Sadly, if you’re expecting the quirky, queer characters as seen in LIFE IS STRANGE, you should look elsewhere. These characters are straight archetypes; all older angst and repression. However, if you enjoy murder mysteries and adventure games, it’s a well-developed work.

MURDER, SHE WROTE – The Days Dwindle Down (1987)

The Strange Bargain of Murder, She Wrote’s The Days Dwindle Down

(This is a repost of a previously penned look at this singular MURDER, SHE WROTE episode from my old tumblr.)

(Freevee/peacock) Please note: this article contains major spoilers for both the film STRANGE BARGAIN as well as the MURDER, SHE WROTE episode The Days Dwindle Down (Season Three, Episode 21).

A killer confronts the person they’ve framed, confesses their crimes, then threatens to take down the wronged man or woman. The police, waiting in the wings, swoop in and safely apprehend the killer. The wronged person sighs with relief and ‘The End’ appears on the screen.

This is the closing sequence of many movies, including the little known 1949 RKO noir film STRANGE BARGAIN. The audience assumes that the ex-suspect can move on and return to a normal, humdrum domestic life. What if they were wrong?

The Days Dwindle Down, the 21st MURDER, SHE WROTE episode of the show’s third season, asks that very question but it does so through the lens of the film STRANGE BARGAIN. By utilizing footage from the movie and casting the major players in the same roles, it tasks writer/amateur detective Jessica Fletcher with solving a crime that, for thirty years, was considered a closed case. It’s a particularly interesting concept — one that I haven’t seen attempted in any TV shows prior or since — and it elevated the normally conservative MURDER, SHE WROTE to a TV event that likely won’t be repeated any time soon.

The episode opens with Georgia Wilson (Martha Scott) overhearing Jessica Fletcher discuss her “real-life sleuthing” with her agent. Georgia pulls Jessica aside to ask for her help: her husband, Sam (Jeffrey Lynn), was just released from a 30 year stinct in prison for a crime he didn’t commit, but they can’t move ahead together without finding out who Sam was doing time for.

Ever the optimist, Jessica offers her help and listens to their tale. The story, told through flashbacks utilizing scenes from Strange Bargain, detail Sam’s struggle: while going through a financially turbulent period, Sam (at the request of his wife) requests a raise from his boss, Malcolm Jarvis. Instead of bargaining with him, Malcolm immediately fires Sam, citing both his, and the investment firm’s, poor fiscal condition. However, Malcolm proposes a solution to both of their ills: Malcolm is so cash-desperate that he had taken out a substantial life insurance policy, and he planned to kill himself and pose the scene so it looks like murder, allowing his wife and son a secure future. What’s in it for Sam? $10,000. All he needs to do is to complete the tableau by firing a few shots inside the Malcolm’s study after the suicide, and then dispose of the weapon.

Sam refuses the offer, but Malcolm won’t take no for an answer. The night of the planned suicide, Malcolm calls Sam and tells him he’s going through with it. Sam rushes over to Malcolm’s home to prevent him, but he’s too late: Malcolm is lying face down in a pool of blood, gun by his head. On his desk is a personalized note to Sam, along with an envelope containing $10,000 dollars. Sam decides to follow through with the plan, partially out of guilt, and partially because of the money. He takes the note, the gun, and the cash, goes outside and fires two shots through the office window, then disposes of the gun at a nearby pier. He cleans the remaining blood off of himself and the car, but it’s to no avail; he ultimately ends up becoming the prime suspect for murdering Malcolm, chased by Lieutenant Richard Webb (played by a pre-Dragnet Harry Morgan), a war-wounded cop with a bum leg, a hooked cane, and a record for always getting his man.

Jessica takes all of this in and immediately concludes that there’s no way Sam could be the murderer, and she agrees to investigate further.

This is where certain facts from the film are conveniently — and permanently — excised from The Days Dwindle Down: Strange Bargain actually had a happy ending, an ending that didn’t involve Sam going to jail. The closing scene sees Sam return to Malcolm’s home where he confesses to Edna Jarvis, Malcolm’s wife, that he didn’t kill Malcolm; instead it was an act of suicide. Consequently, there would be no insurance money. He hands over the $10,000, hoping to wash his hands of the whole affair, when Edna informs him that she knew of Malcolm’s plans to kill himself, that she approved, and even coordinated alibis for herself and her son to ensure that they would avoid suspicion.

Edna explains to Sam that she had her doubts that Malcolm would follow through, so she returned to the house to listen for the gunshot and, when she failed to hear one she enters, only to see Malcolm standing, gun reluctantly hanging by his side. He simply didn’t have the wherewithal to go through with it. “Malcolm was a weakling. I had the courage to do what he couldn’t do. […] It really was suicide, in a way,” she explains. “He just needed someone else to pull the trigger.” And so she did.

She points a gun at Sam, noting that the police will find him dead — another suicide — and she’ll be in the clear. She pulls the trigger, misses, merely grazes his arm. A cane stretches into the frame, hooks her arm, and Lieutenant Webb bursts into the scene, knocks Edna’s gun to the ground, and the police drag her away. Webb explains been following Sam for days, that they heard everything, and Sam is now absolved of any blame. Georgia rushes in, holds him tight, as he recants: “Darling, I made a terrible mistake but I’ll never make another one.”

“Oh yes you will,” she warmly retorts. “You’ll make lots of them. Not like this, but you’re a man and men are always making mistakes. Even women make them sometimes.” The End. Credits roll. *

Lacking this information, Jessica hits the trail alongside Sam’s son Rod (The Brood’s Art Hindle) – a cop, determined to prove his father innocent. They start off by interrogating all living offspring, including Richard Beymer as Sydney Jarvis (presciently acting very much like a proto-Benjamin Horne). From there, Jessica slyly tracks down Malcolm’s old secretary Thelma Vantay (played by June Havoc instead of Betty Underwood) and asks her if Edna, Malcolm’s wife, could have shot him.

“Mrs. Jarvis couldn’t have murdered anybody,” Thelma plainly states.

Jessica shoots her a quizzical look. “You mean, she was …too nice?”

“She didn’t have the guts!”

After discussing the case with the Wilson family over a nice home-cooked dinner, Jessica heads back to her hotel room for a fitful rest, only to awoken by a gunshot that found its way into her hotel room chair. The next morning, the cops procure the bullet and note that it belongs to a .38 revolver: the same type of gun that killed Malcolm. Unfortunately all of the prior Jarvis case records are missing, thwarting any attempts to match ballistics.

Jessica, undeterred, tracks down Edna Jarvis (played by Gloria Stuart, as Katherine Emery had passed away), and finds her in a nursing home, barely aware of her surroundings but zealously guarded by Sydney.

Conveniently, Jessica receives a phone call from a stranger purporting to have something that may help her investigation. Jessica taxi’s over to meet the man and is greeted by now-retired Lieutenant Richard Webb (still played by Harry Morgan, whose performance has loosened up over the years). He reveals that he has had the case record the entire time (“My Lindbergh baby,” he quips) and they confirm that the bullet fired into her chair was from the same gun. On the subject of Thelma, Malcolm’s secretary, Webb remarks that “I figured she was playing bedsheet bingo with the boss.”

Jessica enlists Rod, and the two scurry back to Ms. Vantay and, after a few rounds of good cop/bad cop, manage to squeeze out the admission that she deduced Malcolm hadn’t killed himself, and figured Sydney was covering it up. Sydney had been perfectly willing to pay her hush money but recently had fought back, knowing she couldn’t go to the cops without being brought up on blackmail charges.

Jessica and Rod gather Sam and Georgina to see Sydney in his drawing room, setting the stage for the big reveal. After quite a bit of verbal sparring with Jessica, Sydney eventually confesses, claiming that he killed his father, and he breaks down the events via more Strange Bargain flashbacks:

Sydney states that he saw Sam when he discovered Malcolm’s body in the study. He followed Sam to the pier (indicated in the flashback by black-and-white loafers) where he fished the gun from the water, just in case any prints were still left.

Jessica listens intently, then clucks at him. “You didn’t really kill your father at all, did you? Aren’t you really covering up for your mother?”

Sydney paces between two portraits of his parents while trying to explain away Jessica’s conjecture, but it’s no use. He sinks into a nearby chair, defeated, and reveals that, yes, his mother did kill Malcolm. Through another flashback, we see that it was an accident: Edna happened to enter the study when she saw Malcolm, poised with a gun to his head. She struggled with him, attempting to wrest the gun from him, but it went off and Malcolm was no more.

Considering the narrative dissonance, it’s not surprising that there was no mention of the film’s closing scene now. In fact, all of Sydney’s flashbacks are markedly different from the source footage. His shoes are inserted in the flashback footage, as is Edna’s tussle with her husband (they don’t even try to hide Edna’s casting change). It’s tough (but not impossible) to explain these discrepancies away as unreliable narration on Edna’s behalf, that she shot Sam in self-defense, that she was lying to protect Malcolm’s legacy and therefore Sydney’s, but the fact that it’s never even mentioned 30 years later is glaring.

At the end, everyone’s happy (or, at least as happy as they can be). Knowing Edna’s state, Sam doesn’t want to press charges, and they feel they can move on with their lives. The resolution fits the MURDER, SHE WROTE formula of exonerating any female suspects, and defangs Edna in particular. In short, the murder and the resulting events have been whitewashed. Thanks to the lack of morally ambiguous characters, STRANGE BARGAIN was hardly noir before The Days Dwindle Down, but Jessica’s deductions turn it into something else entirely.

I wasn’t familiar with STRANGE BARGAIN when I first saw The Days Dwindle Down, and I sought it out simply to see how the MURDER, SHE WROTE writers incorporated the source material. I assumed that The Days Dwindle Down had reversed whatever had been decided at the end of the film, that the events in the film were reshuffled or re-contextualized to put a different spin on the source material, or that the episode would at least would play with point-of-views and unreliable narration. While the concept and Jessica’s sleuthing was intriguing and well-executed, the reveal was far weaker, and far less interesting, than the tepid source material. Ideally MURDER, SHE WROTE would have been tweaked to accommodate the film and the characters’ needs; not the other way around.

The Days Dwindle Down aired almost exactly 28 years ago, the same span of years between the episode and STRANGE BARGAIN’s release. I’ve never seen anything quite like it before (if anyone else has — note that I’m not counting franchises or TV reunions — please chime in) and it may be another 28 years before see something like it again. I do believe The Days Dwindle Down to be the most experimental, noteworthy episode of MURDER, SHE WROTE but, while I still bemoan the end result, I heartily recommend it to anyone that will listen. Just make sure to watch it first, and STRANGE BARGAIN second.

STRANGE BARGAIN is currently unavailable to stream, and is only available as a Region 2 DVD.

For a more comprehensive look at STRANGE BARGAIN, click here.


I am an unabashed Agatha Christie fan. I’ve read every Christie-penned Poirot novel. I’ve seen a live rendition of THE MOUSETRAP, albeit, not in London’s West End (although, not for want of trying). I’ve spent many hours watching adaptations of hers, partially because I’m simply fascinated with how folks adapt her works.

Folks nitpick her, saying she’s a sloppy storyteller, which due to possible Alzheimers, that’s fair concerning some of her later works, but when she was at the top of her game she was endlessly inventive, and constantly challenging herself and her readers.

I can’t say that SEE HOW THEY RUN is as ambitious as Christie’s best works, such as THE A.B.C. MURDERS or THE MURDER OF ROGER ACKROYD or AND THEN THERE WERE NONE. However, it is slightly more ambitious than the Christie work it’s riffing on, THE MOUSETRAP, which is a very thin, very perfunctory murder mystery radio play — originally named THREE BLIND MICE, as Christie loves utilizing nursery rhymes and schoolyard songs — that Christie adapted into a short story. It then became the longest running theatrical play in history; perfect for dinner theatre, but not much else.

Famously, Christie sold off the film rights with the caveat that production could start shortly after the West End play closed. It’s still playing there to this day.

Instead of creating an adaptation of THE MOUSETRAP, SEE HOW THEY RUN is a meta-version of THE MOUSETRAP, where the murder mystery takes place during a production of THE MOUSETRAP. Not the cleverest conceit, but it’s serviceable enough to bring in a game — albeit underutilized — cast, which includes short-lived Adrian Brody, Sam Rockwell as the inspector, and the highlight of the film, Saoirse Ronan as the delightfully winsome Constable Stalker.

Frankly, I just want an entire series about Constable Stalker, and Saoirse’s endless enthusiasm practically sells the film in-and-of-itself.

That said, SEE HOW THEY RUN also has some stellar production design and camera work, and comes together far better than, say, Branagh’s tragedy of DEATH ON THE NILE, although it is a bit too tidy.

I can’t say this film will please everyone, but if you’re into Christie, it fits the playbill.


The moment I realized Dorothy L. Sayers’ THE NINE TAILORS was a special sort of murder mystery novel was when I encountered one passage and thought: “Wow, she’s really leaning hard on the details of this old church’s bells.” Ten pages later: “Cripes, I never knew that I wanted to know this much about bell-ringing!”

Sayers is best-known for her murder mysteries, specifically her Lord Peter Wimsey mysteries, featuring a rich, compassionate, gregarious but astute man who often finds himself surrounded by death. GAUDY NIGHT (the tenth Wimsey story, published in 1935, one a year after THE NINE TAILORS) is perhaps her best-known, but sadly, nowadays unless you’re attending an Edgar Awards afterparty, you’re probably unlikely to hear her name or accidentally stumble over a visual adaptation of any of her novels.

This is a shame — and something The Dorothy L. Sayers Society is trying to rectify — because, as THE NINE TAILORS exemplifies, she’s exceptional at weaving a engaging world, one dense with intriguing and idiosyncratic individuals, where actions are richly detailed, and each work is ornately penned to soothe even the most high-minded snob. In her hands, the murder contained in THE NINE TAILORS almost fades away as we’re drawn into this small town and its denizens.

In other words: THE NINE TAILORS is the complete package. It’s thrilling, it has depth, it goes unfathomably deep into the world of bell-ringing in ways that manage to be highly entertaining, and it sticks the landing in an amazingly satisfying way. It’s an absolute classic, one that should certainly not be overlooked by any mystery fan.

Read here:

SEARCH PARTY (2016-2021)

(HBO MAX/hoopla) SEARCH PARTY would have been a memorable cult TV show even if it were a one season-and-done and, while I was a bit gobsmacked to see that it was renewed not twice, not three times, but four! — I had no idea how this show could sustain itself for a second season, much less five — it’s always had a very singular dry, but confident and clever, comedic voice.

The first season introduces us to a group of self-centered, off-putting millennials tearing themselves away from their guac-and-toast brunch to solve the mystery of a missing acquaintance they barely know, and matters go amazingly awry.

I can’t quite describe the following seasons without diving into spoilers regarding the end of the first season, but each season tackles a different sort of genre: the second turns into a crime thriller, the third a legal procedural, the fourth centers around a kidnapping, and the fifth jumps into the a cultish future before going full horror.

If you’re having a hard time wrapping your mind as to how all that works without it becoming some sort of Ryan Murphy-ish anthology series, I don’t blame you. On paper, it sounds absolutely bonkers and, in reality, it’s a high-wire balancing act without a net that they manage to walk without barely a wobble.

It’s the rare show that gets to have its cake and eat it too: the actors (including Alia Shawkat as Dory, the propulsive element of the group) imbue the characters with a certain quizzical ennui that is irrestable, so you both love and hate them. You get to see them reckon with their selfish attitudes, but also empathize with them. Add to that some whipsmart dialogue, vibrant cinematography, a haunting electro score, and a litany of fantastic cameos from actors you’d never expect to see on a TBS show* (including Michaela Watkins, Ann Dowd, and one of Louie Anderson’s final performances which, unsurprisingly, is amazing), and you have an idiosyncratic show for the ages (or at least for ages 25-40).

For those brave enough to endure a trailer for the first two seasons (and the second season spoilers are very vague):

  • It’s worth noting that the last two seasons were HBO MAX-exclusives.


As noted in my ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER post, in 2021 I completed a seven-year-long endeavor to read every Poirot novel. Why? I wanted to scrutinize how Christie adjusted Poirot and his scenarios to adapt to the passage of time, given that the initial Poirot novel — THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES — was first published in 1920, and the last-penned novel — ELEPHANTS CAN REMEMBER — was published in 1972. A single author continuing the journey of a character explicitly created to examine human nature, over the span of fifty years, is a curious thing indeed.

However, THE MYSTERIOUS AFFAIR AT STYLES was not my first Christie book; that would be the second Miss Marple book THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY, which I picked up on a whim while in London, several months prior to reading my first Poirot novel.

While I haven’t found the need to burn through all of Christie’s Marple novels, I became intensely curious about THE MIRROR CRACK’D FROM SIDE TO SIDE (CRACK’D from here on out), as it features Marple diving into the world of Hollywood, specifically the world of acting, when the acclaimed-but-aging actress Marina Gregg moves into Gossington Hall*. While throwing a lavish introductory party, one of the locals ends up being poisoned, and Scotland Yard presumes that the murder was misplaced, that Marina was the actual target, and the mystery is then investigated.

While CRACK’D takes place in the early sixties, its reliance on the Hollywood of old, and Christie’s demeanor and approach makes it feel more like a post WWII mystery novel, even down to the scandal trades that she notes (CONFIDENTIAL and the like) makes the tale feel aged and artificial, as if it’s something Marple is regaling a relative with as opposed to living in the moment. In other words, it’s not one of Christie’s finest moments.

There’s also the fact that the mystery is nakedly cribbed from real-life events. Spoilers follow, so reader beware.

CRACK’D is essentially the story of Gene Tierney, perhaps best known for the enigmatic film noir adaptation of LAURA. Tierney was quite the starlet during the 40s, was the model for Mariana Gregg, and whose child was afflicted due to being in close proximity to someone inflicted with German Measles. If you know that fact going in, the mystery is quite straight-forward. Whether it was common knowledge in the early 60s is questionable, but given the fact that I knew it going in, it cast a bit of a pall over the story, especially since Marple barely bookends the story, leaving the heavy-lifting to Detective-Inspector Craddock.

Nonetheless, it’s an eminently brisk read, one worth your time if you’re interested in the inside baseball of 40s Hollywood, but if you aren’t, and aren’t a fan of Miss Marple? Feel free to return to the library.

  • Gossington Hall was where the titular body in the library was found in THE BODY IN THE LIBRARY, bringing my Christie journey full-circle.


What could have been a lazy riff on the self-absorption of modern true crime podcasts became something far more interesting, bolstered by some of the best performances by Steve Martin and Martin Short in years. Also, as someone who constantly extolls the use of silence in visual works, I was gobsmacked by the seventh ep of season one, ‘The Boy from 6B’. Additionally, Selena Gomez is a triumph who constantly overshadows both Martins.

It’s a legitimately thrillingly suspenseful tale that, honestly? Didn’t need to be.

COLUMBO: The Most Crucial Game (1972, S02E03)

(peacock/tubi/VOD) Gutted to hear that the world has lost Dean Stockwell. While he was in two COLUMBO episodes, my favorite of his is THE MOST CRUCIAL GAME. Dean Stockwell plays Eric Wagner, a hedonistic playboy who owns a Los Angeles football team who is murdered by the team’s manager Paul Hanlon (classic COLUMBO villain Robert Culp).

For the roughly ten minutes Stockwell is on-screen, he’s hilariously languid, lazy, high and hungover, and it’s the highlight of the episode — which is saying a lot considering how brilliant the interplay between Culp and Peter Falk always is. It’s not quite what I’d label as a classic episode of COLUMBO, but it’s an extremely enjoyable 75 minutes and, thanks to director Jeremy Kagan — perhaps best known for helming THE CHOSEN (1981) — features some of the surprisingly experimental camerawork and editing that the early COLUMBO eps are known for. You’ll be missed, Dean.


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 )

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.