Curious Toys

This historical mystery (384 pages) was published in October of 2019 by Mulholland Books. The book takes you to 1915 Chicago. David read Curious Toys and loved it; it wouldn't be on our site if he didn't recommend it.

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Curious Toys

Elizabeth Hand

Equal parts coming-of-age tale, murder mystery, and historical fiction, this atmospheric story will transport you to 1915 and Chicago’s Riverview Park. It’s got everything you could want in a big adventure: a plucky heroine, a ruthless killer, and the thrilling backdrop of the Windy City.

Meet Pin. She’s the 14-year-old daughter of the amusement park’s fortune teller, and the two of them are barely scraping by. There used to be three of them, but Pin’s younger sister has vanished. In an attempt to stay safe, Pin begins dressing as a boy — all the better to prowl the city streets as a (very charming) drug runner for Max.

And who is Max? — ‘Max and Maxene, She-Male,’ a performer at the park who dresses as a woman on the left and a man on the right, spinning from one side to the other to dazzle audiences with their dual personality.

Pin’s deliveries of hash and marijuana take her all over Chicago: to a jazz club, a university, and vaudeville shows. But her favorite stop is Essanay Studios, a filmmaker that cranks out black-and-white film shorts with printed title cards.

It’s all going as well as it can until a fateful day when Pin sees something chilling. A man and a little girl enter the ride known as ‘Hell’s Gate’ together. But when the two-seater boat re-emerges from the darkness, the man is alone.

Summoning all her grit and moxie to solve the crime, Pin soon finds an unlikely ally — an eccentric artist and self-proclaimed ‘protector of children’ named Henry Darger. Can she trust him? Is he dangerous? Or merely odd? And do the answers to those questions even matter when he’s the only adult who believes Pin’s account of what she saw?

Author Elizabeth Hand was inspired by real people and events in Chicago’s colorful history and spent a decade honing her narrative. The result is a delicious intermingling of story and fact. Its strong sense of Chicago and vivid period details are a time machine to the amusements of Riverside Park, the magic of the early days of film, and the irresistibly seedy underbelly of the city.

Pin hadn’t always lived at the amusement park — only since her mother, Gina, started working there as a fortune-teller. Pin had been born when her mother was the same age as Pin was now, her sister, Abriana, two years later. Back then they lived in a tenement in Little Hell, the Sicilian slum on Chicago’s North Side. Over the years Gina had told Pin that her father was dead; had moved back to Italy; was mining gold in South America; had run off with the woman who owned the Chinese laundry in Larrabee Street. Until one day when Pin asked about him, Gina slapped her so hard her left ear rang for an entire day. She never brought it up again. — Elizabeth Hand

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