Through the Looking-Glass

On the trail of the crippled detectives

In a middling funk last fall, searching for a little prose pick-me-up, I located my printout of Lee Tandy Schwartzman's Crippled Detectives, or The War of the Red Romer, a novella in 25 chapters, published in 1978. It did the trick. I read it straight through, laughing, at points nearly howling with joy. This is how it goes with Crippled Detectives, a breakneck, brilliantly bizarre book packed with globe-trotting set pieces (South Dakota—Paris—the "hot Congo"), stories-inside-stories, fourth-wall demolition, and some of the most impossibly absurd dialogue legally available. (In the pièce de résistance, someone starts speaking in shapes.) There are shadowy sorrows, too, once we learn to read between the lines—but I'm getting ahead of the story.

As much as any book I know, Crippled Detectives transcribes the dream state, not just in its flights of fancy and logic-jumping juxtapositions, but in the mutating narrative tactics, the topsy-turvy focus (the climax is over in a flash, whereas digressions distend to marvelous effect), and especially the inconsistent point of view: "They" and "we" trade places, and a character named Lee is also sometimes "I." Thick with incident but ever on the verge of oblivion, the story contains its own negation. Things happen, but don't. For example, the titular heroes are only nominally crippled (hit by a falling tree or paralyzed by jellyfish poison, they're ambulatory again in no time) and engage in minimal sleuthing. "After they got better they were not well," runs a typical line. Yet contradiction becomes a heady virtue, and Crippled Detectives is a wonderfully sustained performance, a triumph of authorial impulse that never bores or confuses even as it runs circles around the helpless, happy reader.

I forgot to mention that Lee Tandy Schwartzman was all of seven years old when she wrote it.

Crippled Detectives appeared, with illustrations by the author, as the entire November-December 1978 issue of Stone Soup, a magazine devoted to children's writing and artwork. (The entire book can be read at Gerry Mandel, the magazine's co-founding editor, visited Lee at home in Seattle in May of that year to prepare the text. Mandel told me recently:

Lee was quiet at first, with her head buried in a book. She was a beautiful little girl, delicate, graceful, with big blue eyes and a big vocabulary. When I met her, age 9, her passion was horses. She had a collection of plastic horses, and made lots of drawings of horses. She gave me her latest story to read, "The Dogs of Ireland," which she said was the best thing she ever wrote. . . . She had lots and lots of drawings, including a set of characters, such as the Countess of Penselvania [sic] and the Mayor of China.

After my first jaw-dropping exposure to Crippled Detectives in 2002, I asked Mandel if she knew what the author was doing now. She had long since lost touch with the family, but recalled that Lee's mother, Gwen Head, was a poet. Last November, eager to learn more about Lee, I looked up her work.

We want our writers mad—or think we do. The publisher's description of Head's most recent book, Fire Shadows (Louisiana State University, 2001), was heartbreaking: In 1989, it said, her "only daughter" checked into McLean, the famous psychiatric clinic near Boston (illustrious alums include Sylvia Plath and Robert Lowell). She was almost 21, and had been diagnosed with bipolar disorder, or manic depression. She stayed at McLean for over a year, a fraught period that inspired Fire Shadows. Strangely, the name of Head's daughter wasn't Lee. Maybe Mandel had misidentified Lee's mother. Maybe the prodigiously gifted little girl who had dreamt up Crippled Detectives had passed into adulthood unscathed.

"Poe invented the detective story that he might not go mad," Joseph Wood Krutch wrote. Ratiocination defeats demons on the page; does it dispel them in the mind as well? Crippled Detectives isn't a traditional mystery, but in its textures and tensions it points to large forces, perhaps even conflicts in the writer's psyche.

With only occasional nods to the "rules" of fiction, stories written by children can reveal fantastically fertile mental terrain. It's a place at once familiar (from our own childhoods) and thrillingly original—a province of outsider art, crisscrossed by streams of consciousness. Who is the Red Romer? Why are the children invisibly "crippled"? Schwartzman's creation offers enough riches for an annotated edition.

Like all superior stories, it begins in medias res: " 'Oh!' said Sylvia suddenly. 'What?' said Lee alarmed. 'Oh I have to go out with you to get firewood,' replied Sylvia. 'Oh now I remember,' said Lee . . . " Literally fueling up, the story hits the ground running. At its core is a showdown between five siblings—the "elders" Sylvia and Lee (both age 15), Anne (five), Ben (four), and Lisette (three)—and the one-handed arch-villain known as the Red Romer. Our young author pulls no punches. Red Romer threatens to blow up Europe, which would result in "9,000,000,000,000 dead people including you," and he engineers the plane crash that orphans the kids.

Abundant humor and wild imagination leaven the sanguinary saga. Much attention is paid to Red Romer's courting of Susan Simmer, so called because she "simmers poison into drugs and drugs into food." The chapter titles alone are worth the price of admission: "We Fail," "Our Trouble!!!," the poignant, almost mystical "Four Alone." Schwartzman is the best sort of show-off, entertaining us with exhaustive lists—of vegetation, nighttime activities, the floridly multicultural names of maids—and deploying an arsenal of verbs whenever possible. Her elastic prose bounces from goofy hip-speak (Red Romer calls Susan a "great chick") to austere, even Austenian sagacity ("Like any girl or boy in the world knows, it is not very pleasant to wait unless you have something to amuse yourself").

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