Elizabeth Hand places her kaleidoscopic new novel, “Curious Toys,” at this intersection of delight and danger. Pin, a 14-year-old girl who dresses as a boy, is her unlikely heroine. Pin’s mother, a fortuneteller working at the amusement park, offered her daughter a masculine disguise to protect her after Pin’s younger sister, Abriana, went missing. But the disguise is an unexpected gift to Pin, for whom “being a girl was like a huge scab she couldn’t scrape off, no matter how hard she tried.” In her new clothes, she finds that “being a boy meant freedom,” and that unlike other secrets she harbors, this one “made her feel bigger, not smaller.”
As a boy, Pin navigates the freewheeling carnival culture with bravado. She (in her own thoughts, Pin refers to herself in the feminine) picks up spending money by running drugs for Max, a man who performs at the carnival as “Max and Maxene, She-Male.” For his act he dresses as a woman on his left side and as a man on the right, and turns slowly from one side to the other in front of a delighted and horrified audience. He’s fascinating and terrifying to Pin, as well.
Pin’s delivery route takes her all over Chicago, including an abortion clinic, a jazz club and a university. She makes a regular stop at a film studio where she delivers dope to Lionel, a photoplay writer who is fascinated by tales of lurid crimes and keeps a notebook filled with ideas ripped from the headlines. Gloria, an actress at the film studio, takes a liking to Pin; Pin responds with powerfully forbidden feelings of her own. Charlie Chaplin even puts in an appearance, making his own play for Gloria or any other young actress who will accept his attention.
It’s a complicated world for young Pin, and it becomes even more complicated when she witnesses a crime while lingering around Hell Gate, a ride that takes thrill-seekers through a dark and spooky canal on little boats. It’s popular among couples seeking a few moments alone together in the dark, but as Pin watches couples embark and disembark, she notices something else: one girl who went in with an older man and didn’t come out the other side. When no one believes her, Pin undertakes an investigation herself.
And there’s no question that something horrible has happened, because the villain himself is present in this novel as a nameless, anonymous man whose identity is concealed from the reader as he commits his crimes. Hand throws in enough misdirection to make him look like everyone else in the novel — even Chaplin — so that everyone is a suspect, and no one can be relied upon.
With short, breathlessly paced chapters and constantly shifting points of view, “Curious Toys” is itself like a carnival ride: alternatively dazzling and terrifying, disorienting and marvelous. When the girl’s disappearance becomes public knowledge, we follow an ex-cop, Francis Bacon, who works security at the carnival in the summer and serves as a department store detective in winter. Francis conducts his own investigation, but he’s oblivious to the underworld that Pin traverses so deftly.
It’s in this underworld that Pin meets the real-life outsider artist Henry Darger. Darger was in and out of institutions as a boy, lived an impoverished life in Chicago, and left behind an epic illustrated novel spanning 15,000 pages (among many other works) when he died. This prolific unschooled artist is recognized today as one of America’s great folk artists, but he died unknown. Hand has been fascinated with Darger for decades, and places him at the center of this novel as another amateur detective who teams up — in his own awkward, puzzling, shambling way — with Pin to solve the case of the missing girl. It’s a fitting story line for Darger, who was obsessed with the death and disappearance of a little girl in 1911. He cherished a newspaper photograph of the girl, and when he lost it, his grief and rage inspired his frantic, prolific work.
Darger’s work also explored themes of sexuality and gender identity, themes that are expanded and amplified in “Curious Toys.” In Pin’s world, girls are fragile, vulnerable, under attack and powerless to defend themselves. A boy’s identity acts as a kind of invisibility cloak to Pin, ensuring her safe passage through a world that neither values nor protects her otherwise. In her search for the killer, Pin fights to take a dangerous man off the street and comes to grips with her own sister’s disappearance. But she’s not just trying to solve the case — she’s trying to solve the puzzle of her own identity, and to save herself.
Amy Stewart is the author, most recently, of the novel “Kopp Sisters on the March.”