Hand delivers another brilliant mystery ... Pin is a first-rate heroine...Hand juxtaposes Pin’s concealment of her gender with the killer’s obsession with dressing dolls, making Pin’s anxiety about her identity all the more resonant ... packed with evocative historical detail of Chicago and its amusement park ... Hand’s rendering of Darger’s Tourettic tics is just one of many deft touches in her wonderfully imaginative and richly delivered narrative ... While the amusement park setting enables Hand to ramp up the tension with a toolbox of strange and creepy people and places to play with, she never falls prey to pointless sensationalism. This makes Pin’s story — her quest to discover the truth, not just about what happened in Hell Gate, but about who she is and how she might find a place in the world — more vivid.
Told in short, deft chapters that include both Darger and the killer’s perspectives (which may or may not be one and the same), the novel pays as much attention to narrative twists and turns as it does to the delights of burgeoning modernity ... Curious Toys is chockablock with engrossing historical asides ... Darger’s artistic preoccupations, as well as his many eccentricities, could become clunky plot-weights in other hands, but Hand gives his unreliability a chiaroscuro quality. We are not sure whether to trust him, but like Pin, we want to. The novel’s overarching ambience of terror is never sacrificed during its more idiosyncratic historical detours. 'Dark ride' doesn’t just describe the lurid indoor amusements contained in Hell Gate—it’s an apt summary of Curious Toys and all its shadowy diversions. These crop up in herky-jerky rhythms, lurching out at the reader like midway barkers or costumed nightmares stalking a haunted house. Behind the carnival facades and film sets, the sense of dread is all too real.
... [a] brilliant, bustling historical mystery ... while Hand paces her mystery with classic precision, the real reward of Curious Toys lies in its richly textured panorama of Chicago during a crucial period of change, and in its vivid characters. Riverview, of course, is legendary among older Chicagoans, and Hand presents it not as a generic carnival-murder setting, but as a kind of distorting mirror of cultural anxieties, many of which are still with us today ... Hand’s research is not merely for display, but rather shows us what sorts of things her characters might plausibly have been thinking about in 1915 ... Even with such skillfully rendered secondary characters, the emotional weight of the novel rests on Pin and Darger ... Hand only occasionally risks giving us a glimpse into Darger’s troubled thinking and wisely refrains from making him into an idiot-savant detective, but she offers a persuasive portrait of how a damaged genius with an obsession to protect children might have interacted with the chaotic Chicago of his time, where children really were endangered on a daily basis. How Darger finally affects Pin, and how she affects him, lead to a moving and thought-provoking conclusion.