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'Curious Toys' Gets Itself Into Unnecessary Trouble

Editor's note: This review contains major spoilers about the plot.

Elizabeth Hand's historical thriller Curious Toys is chiefly compelling for its smart, streetwise, complicated protagonist, teenage Pin — and for the careful and vivid evocation of Pin's Chicago circa 1915, with all of its sordid glories: amusement parks, silent film studios, gangsters and the brutal poverty of the Brickworks district, where the bricks that rebuilt the city after the Great Fire were mass-produced in suffocating kiln-smoke.

Pin's primary companion in solving the central mystery of the book — young girls are being murdered at the Riverview amusement park — is, intriguingly, the real-world figure of Henry Darger, an outsider artist and writer. Darger's magnum opus, The Story of the Vivian Girls, in What Is Known as the Realms of the Unreal, of the Glandeco-Angelinian War Storm, Caused by the Child Slave Rebellion, runs to 15 richly illustrated volumes — a sort of hallucinatory combination of L. Frank Baum and surrealist fable.

Hand, in her author's afterword, suggests that her primary inspiration for this book was the idea of Darger as a detective. Curious Toys, therefore, serves as a fictional version of the events that could have inspired Darger's obsessive work. It is therefore obsessed with Darger's obsessions — and that is where Curious Toys gets itself into trouble it does not need to be in.

Darger was, by all accounts, fixated on the 1911 abduction and murder of 5-year-old Elsie Paroubek; losing a newspaper photograph of the child sent him into paroxysms of grief — and writing. The Story of the Vivian Girls is in some ways a revenge story, where child victims devictimize themselves. Its influence on Curious Toys, therefore, must be in the story of those child victims. Hand has chosen a fairly standard serial-killer plot: A necrophilic pedophile, who not only kills young girls but also steals their clothes to dress a lifesize doll which he then photographs in sexualized positions, has been haunting the amusement parks of 1910s America.

When he strikes at Riverview, Pin and Darger form an unlikely partnership of investigation and discovery. Hand provides the killer's point of view — one which is rightfully disturbing, but also uncomfortably focused on his atrocities. That focus feels especially unpleasant to the reader when coupled with Darger's equally obsessed-with-young-girls viewpoint and the inclusion of a fairly inexplicable cameo from Charlie Chaplin, who is also -- as he was in life — more interested in young teenagers than he should be. The entire story rotates around the metaphor of girls as toys, the curious toys of the title and the ugliness of desire for toylike young women.

This in and of itself is no more problematic than many other thrillers. But — and warning, here come the spoilers — both Hand's protagonist, Pin, and her serial killer villain, are variations on girls themselves. And this is where the delightful evocation of Chicago and the truly excellent and exciting pacing and prose in this book do not do enough to make up for its shortcomings. Most clearly and frustratingly, the serial killer is revealed to be a cross-dressing carnival showman, Max. He's referred to throughout the book as "She-Male," presumably after the name of his half-man-half-woman act — it's a period-appropriate epithet, certainly, but winceworthy. Worse is the inevitable association of pedophilia with cross-dressing that this choice of identity for the killer implies. I was profoundly disappointed by the lack of forethought on Hand's part, especially considering the complexity of her Chicago and her otherwise careful handling of racial and gender biases in the 1910s.

That complexity is present in Pin, who was born a girl named Vivian and who dresses as a boy for reasons of safety and for her own enjoyment. Pin is clearly not transgender. She is sensitively drawn as a young butch lesbian who does not yet have the vocabulary to describe herself or her desires. Pin's flirtation with a young film actress, Glory, and their mutual delight in the aviatrix Harriet Quimby, who dresses in men's clothing for her flights, is one of the loveliest parts of this book. It is so clearly the story of a young woman discovering her sexuality, on her own terms, despite the pressures of misogyny and ignorance. However, in combination with the cross-dressing serial killer Max, Pin's cross-dressing-while-butch reads as a condemnation of genderqueerness: Max is both male and female, and horrific; while Pin is cisgendered and righteous.

These connotations undermine the central metaphor of the book: that the constant pressure to see girls as toys, mute and without agency creates opportunities for atrocity — and that as long as girls are seen as toys, their motive force to self-rescue will be underestimated by those who commit atrocities. I would have liked a book that held on to that metaphor very much, especially one written with Curious Toys' historical depth. But Hand has let Darger's obsessions run away with the story and not been careful enough with her characterizations to avoid a truly unpleasant aftertaste.

Arkady Martine is a speculative fiction writer, a Byzantinist, and a city planner — the latter two as Dr. AnnaLinden Weller. She tweets @ArkadyMartine.

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Arkady Martine