Chicago, 1915: In the midst of a steamy summer, a rash of child murders terrifies the city in Hand's (Hard Light, 2016, etc.) latest.
After her younger sister went missing, 14-year-old Pin’s mother, the carnival fortuneteller, told her to dress like a boy, so now she runs free through the park, delivering drugs, sneaking into rides, and hoping for a chance to see Glory, a local movie actress. But most of all she enjoys the chance to observe the chaotic scene of the carnival. One day, she notices a man and a young girl in line for the Hell Gate, a notorious “love boat” ride—only the man emerges alone from the other side of the tunnel. Girls go missing all the time in Chicago, but Pin’s suspicions are piqued, and when she discovers the girl’s naked body floating in the waters of the ride, all hell breaks loose. As the carnival policeman, Francis Bacon, conducts an investigation along with the local cops, Pin encounters help of her own in the form of Henry Darger, clearly a fictionalized version of the real reclusive artist. Here, he is a strange and troubled man who lives at the hospital and calls himself a “general of the Gemini,” purporting to protect and rescue girls in trouble. To call the novel and its characters “colorful” is a terrific understatement. A carnival setting immediately allows for a higher threshold of the bizarre, but Hand skillfully develops each character beyond mere oddity or empty sensation. Even Charlie Chaplin gets a cameo, though it’s far from flattering. Dr. H.H. Holmes is a ghostly presence within the novel, invoked by several characters; this comparison to another Chicago murderer serves to deepen context. While Henry and his occasional moments of narration take a little getting used to, the wordplay and imagination that qualify his chapters become more and more appealing. Most of all, Pin is an engaging, courageous heroine, and her musings on gender identity are both poignant and relevant.
Richly imaginative and psychologically complex.