“Curious Toys”

By Elizabeth Hand

 Although I make the claim that I am a lifelong science fiction fan, “Curious Toys” is nevertheless the first book I’ve read by Elizabeth Hand, who lives in Lincolnville and has won awards and accolades for her often dark SF and fantasy stories. And just to confuse you further, I was curious about “Curious Toys” because it’s a murder mystery. My reading is branching out, or escaping inward, to the pure yarn, as it were, here on the leeward side of 65.

Anyway, Hand’s new book is set in 1915 at the Riverview Amusement Park in Chicago. After some scene-setting chapters whose carny atmosphere is a stew of “October Country” Ray Bradbury stories and “Blade Runner,” we find ourselves on the park’s house of horrors ride with the main character, Pin. Pin is a 14-year-old girl disguised for daily wear and tear as a boy because her mother, Gina Maffucci, the park’s fortune teller, has already lost one daughter to mysterious circumstances and doesn’t want to lose another. Pin has snuck into the “Hell Gate” ride because she saw a strange man befriend in a strange way a footloose young girl. Inside the ride, Pin finds the girl’s body.

How or even whether she should report the corpse instantly vexes Pin. She tells a wise old carny, a black man, about it, which leads by hook and by racist crook to the old guy getting arrested for the murder, even though everybody in the park knows it cannot possibly be him. Meanwhile, in a couple of really chilling chapters, we get introduced to the killer, who is an early 20th century version of some of the creepiest, nastiest bastards in serial killer history.

And as it happens, literal history is not absent from the story. Charlie Chaplin appears in connection with the murdered girl. And recalled by all the characters — including the constabulary who are desperate to prevent more murders, and the park and city officials who are desperate to keep the whole thing quiet in order to protect profits — is Elsie Paroubek, a 5-year-old Czech girl who was, in historical fact, abducted and murdered in Chicago in 1911. Obsessed (as the author states in an afterword) by Elsie’s death was Henry Darger, an orphan who went on to write and illustrate a stupendous fantasy epic, “The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinnian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion.” You need to know the entire title because Darger is one of the important characters in “Curious Toys.” He is portrayed as an extremely strange 23-year-old who belongs to a secret society dedicated to protecting young girls from being abducted and killed. He’s after the same killer Pin is after. Does he also know what happened to Pin’s sister?

The Bradbury-”Blade Runner” atmosphere goes into the background of the story once the plot starts to gain momentum, but it never disappears because the Darger character is like something out of one of the more bizarre Philip K. Dick novels and the killer is so disturbingly twisted. And constantly present is Pin’s gender-blurred reality — “She felt neither girl nor boy but trapped in between …”

This is a murder mystery, all right, but with strong elements of the fantasy realities for which Hand is internationally famous. I’ve been reading Michael Connelly’s Bosch novels, which are extremely well done within their fictional parameters. I have branched out to the Murdoch books by Maureen Jennings, who summers in Rockland, and Tess Gerritsen, of Camden, and have on my list to read Paul Doiron and Gerry Boyle, among other Maine mystery writers. Now I figure I’ll backtrack through some of Elizabeth Hand’s works. Good weird writing.

Elizabeth Hand has won Nebula and World Fantasy awards for her fiction. She is also the author of “Wylding Hall,” the Cass Neary crime novels, the short fiction collection “Last Summer at Mars Hill,” young adult and comic books, and numerous short articles. “Curious Toys” is available in local book stores and online.

Off Radar takes note of poetry and books with Maine connections the first and third Thursdays of each month. Dana Wilde is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. Contact him at [email protected]

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