Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1991
The valentine in George Dawes Green’s first novel, The Caveman’s Valentine, is a body dropped on Valentine’s Day in front of a cave inhabited by the novel’s would-be sleuth and unwilling hero, Romulus Ledbetter. Known to his fellow homeless as Rom the Caveman, Romulus inhabits a cave in New York City’s Inwood Park. The novel opens with an enraged Romulus incoherently ranting and raving as he attempts to fend off the goodwill of an overly zealous social worker. Not only is Romulus homeless by choice, but he also is a paranoid eccentric given to wild fits of inchoate rambling that make him seem like a lost soul one might encounter on the subway or street corner. Yet Romulus is not without charm. When pressed, Romulus becomes a not-half-bad detective, lover, father, or musician. In Romulus Ledbetter, George Dawes Green has created the first conveniently crazy crime solver, in this odd mix of murder, mystery, and madness.
Romulus lets us know that his situation is the direct result of his mortal, but imaginary, enemy, Stuyvesant, who from his perch in the Chrysler Building zaps the unwitting residents of New York City with y-rays and z-rays. The narrative is sprinkled with Romulus’ descants on Stuyvesant’s zombification campaign. The author uses the y-rays as a device to trigger Romulus’ rants whenever logic seems to threaten the narrative with mundane storytelling.
The arrival of the body on Valentine’s Day convinces Romulus that strange things are afoot. After watching the news on an unplugged television where “all the news is lies,” Romulus stirs from his couch to witness the dumping of a body in a clump of bushes bordering his cave. The police arrive to investigate the murder scene and find Romulus in midrant. Officer Lulu Ledbetter, Romulus’ daughter, attempts impatiently to get the whole story, only to be thwarted by her father’s jumbled sense of events. While under questioning by Detective John Cork, Romulus reveals his paranoid belief that Stuyvesant is responsible for the murder, that is, the machinations of the city. Lulu apologizes for her father’s behavior, dismissing his account of the car dropping the body as yet another of his myriad hallucinations. Romulus is undeterred even when Cork tells him that there was no murder, and that Scotty Gates died from the cold. Romulus lets forth:
“Sounds very reasonable. Except that when he was tossed at my doorstep, he was already dead. He was murdered. . . . You think you can snake this one over on me? But see, I know you! You’re Stuyvesant’s a— — licker!”
Cork leaves Romulus to his cave, considering the case closed, the car a hallucination, and the body an unfortunate victim of the cold. Several days later Scotty’s would-be lover, Matthew, stumbles into Romulus’ cave strung out on heroin, and mentions to Romulus how Scotty had been modeling for an extremely famous photographer, who has just announced publicly that he has AIDS and is dying. Matthew tells Romulus that Scotty was forced into many of the poses by the photographer, David Leppenraub, and that he had been abused on several occasions. Matthew’s story fuels Romulus’ belief that the valentine dumped at his doorstep died from more than the cold. Matthew urges Romulus to find the real killers, awakening the detective in Romulus, who seems all too willing to take up what will prove to be a daunting case. What follows is the soft-boiled, genre-blending search for Scotty’s killers.
Matthew tells Romulus the story of how Scotty Gates came to be the model for Leppenraub’s most famous series of photographs. He describes Scotty’s love/hate relationship with the photographer, and how seemingly harmless photo shoots turned into warped games of sadomasochism that would shock the art world and surely devalue Leppenraub’s photographs. Matthew soon convinces Romulus that he must visit Leppenraub and confront him with the charges of murder. With some goading, Romulus makes a promise to find the real killers. Operating on a hunch and a strong sense of conspiracy, Romulus sets off to find the murderer of Scotty Gates.
What follows is one of the book’s strongest segments, lifting Romulus out of his dreary, fit-addled existence, into social circles where his paranoia and eccentricities give him the advantage. For three whole days, Romulus manages to stuff his personal demons down into their dungeon as he goes about solving the murder. He showers and manages to cop a suit and tie from a good-hearted businessman who is won over by Romulus’ story and his claim to have been a once-promising composer. Through several fairly unbelievable plot twists, Romulus manages to lie his way to an invitation to Leppenraub’s farm, posing as a composer who is working on a musical ode to the works of the photographer. It is during this transformation that we get our first glimpse of Romulus’ considerable talents. Romulus, who eats his dinner out of dumpsters and wears a Teflon pot lined with squirrel fur to keep the y-rays at bay, makes the perfect guest at Leppenraub’s table of pretentious art world wannabes and hangers-on. After several fairly esoteric musical references and some mumbling about his opus, he is immediately accepted at the farm.
While at the farm, Romulus meets Leppenraub’s less famous sister, who is also an artist. Moira Leppenraub, beautiful and artistically underappreciated, is drawn to Romulus’ troubled mind and past. Along with Moira there is Vlad, Leppenraub’s creepy Romanian chauffeur, who Romulus is convinced had a hand in the murder.
Romulus makes his way through the dinner party, set up to honor Leppenraub’s release from the hospital after a bout of pneumonia. Romulus drops dated cultural references and stumbles through pretentious conversations about Leppenraub’s art. Full of wine and insipid conversation, Romulus relents to the pleas of his fellow guests and plays the piano for the party. Midway through his piece, Romulus begins chanting out the word “murderer,” before stopping altogether to continue his rant on Stuyvesant, y-rays, and the conspiracy to murder Scotty Gates. Romulus is properly bounced from the party, only to end up being smuggled back onto the farm by Leppenraub’s sister. Moira has her doubts about the death of Scotty Gates, although she assures Romulus that her brother is by and large a benign person, wanting nothing more than to die with his artistic reputation intact.
Romulus and Moira become unlikely lovers. Moira tells Romulus more of Scotty’s sometimes sick relationship with her brother. She slips and tell Romulus about a video showing Scotty being tortured before he was allowed to pose for a photograph. She stops short of telling him just who she thinks is responsible. Armed with this new piece of evidence, Romulus starts back to the city. En route, he is chased and nearly run over by the very same car that left the body of Scotty Gates at his cave on Valentine’s Day.
Back in the city, Romulus is questioned a second time by his daughter and Detective Cork. Romulus mentions the video tape and describes being chased by the very same car that dumped the body. Detective Cork argues with Romulus over the details and possible motives for Leppenraub to want to murder Scotty. Romulus finally breaks and resorts to his paranoid rant on Stuyvesant until Cork leaves.
Satisfied that the police are now involved in the conspiracy, Romulus searches out Matthew to learn more about the supposed tape. Romulus learns from a couple of junkies that Matthew has been abducted by a pair of men wearing masks, and has not been heard from since. Romulus combs the derelict underground searching for Matthew, only to find him beaten beyond recognition. Matthew manages to warn Romulus about the men before he is taken to the hospital.
With his paranoid fears confirmed, Romulus sets out in earnest to hunt down the tape, hoping to uncover the murderer before they get to him first. When follows is standard gumshoe fare, with Romulus sleuthing about for clues while trying to quell his “Moth Seraphs” of madness, as well as avoiding the imaginary evil, y-rays zapped his way by Stuyvesant, who is sure to have a hand in the conspiracy somewhere.
In plot-driven fare of this nature, one reads to find out what will happen next. With The Caveman’s Valentine, Green has devised not only a murder mystery, but a complex character study. Much of the book is written from Romulus Ledbetter’s point of view, which lends the book a touch of paranoid whimsy, where nothing is as it seems. Enemies, both real and unreal, haunt Romulus through his investigation. Half of the fun in the book is rooting for Romulus to subdue his constant fits of paranoia and interact with the “normal” world long enough for him to solve the crime.
Romulus is the type of character who invokes a sense that a certain perverse logic is at work even in his delusional rants. His conspiracy-laden diatribes against society are the words of a true outsider. Romulus, although semicrazy and most certainly paranoid, speaks the elemental truth of one whose distance from society allows him a unique and sometimes dead-on perception of the functioning of humanity. Throwing aside the conventional, tough-talking detective who has seen it all, Green gives us Romulus in all of his unstable glory. Watching Romulus walking that guy wire of insanity is half of the novel’s fun. Will he hold it together long enough to solve the crime? Will he slide further into his delusions? At the heart of this story there is a second mystery—Romulus.
Getting to the bottom of who killed Scotty Gates is only half of the book. Where most mysteries rely on solving the crime for impetus, The Caveman’s Valentine asks readers to root for its unlikely sleuth, Romulus Ledbetter. Bits and pieces of Romulus’ past are sprinkled throughout the search for the killer. Readers learn that he was at one time considered to be a gifted young composer, but few clues other then artistic burnout are given as to why this once-promising composer has forsaken family, career, and society for the comfort of a cave. Several times during the course of the novel Romulus demonstrates flashes of his musical brilliance, only to stop because of the “pain and memories” that playing induces. As his playing scampers off into insane rants and incoherent dissonance, so does the prose:
“IS IT THE WAY YOU DUMPED HIM IN FRONT OF MY CAVE, LEPPENRAUB? SPECIAL DELIVERY, SO I’D KNOW YOU KILL WHENEVER YOU PLEASE, SO I’D COME AND LICK YOUR SHOES AND BEG YOUR BOSS STUYVESANT FOR A POINT-BLANK SHOT OF Y-RAYS INTO MY BRAIN? . . . AND THE HEART HAS . . . VAMOOSED FROM THIS CULTURE LONG TIME AGO, AND ANYBODY GETS WIND OF THAT, YOU’LL TORTURE HIM AND KILL HIM AND MAKE A VIDEO OF IT AND CALL IT ART! AND YOU’LL THROW HIM IN THE SNOW AND TEACH THE CAVEMAN A LESSON! AND BURN OUT THE CAVEMAN’S EYES WITH BLUE SKY AND GREEN DUCKS AND BROWN EYES . . .”
What makes the book work both as a character study and a page-turner is Green’s grasp of the mystery genre, which lurks on every page. Having the detective be as original and quirky as Romulus Ledbetter is an added delight, giving the book a sense of the surreal with no real forebears or signposts. One can only hope that Green continues in his quest to turn the genre upside down with characters as original and weird as Rom the Caveman.
Sources for Further Study
Boston Globe. January 30, 1994, p. 16.
Chicago Tribune. February 13, 1994, XIV, p. 1.
Kirkus Reviews. LXI, November 15, 1993, p. 1410.
Library Journal. CXVIII, December, 1993, p. 174.
Los Angeles Times Book Review. February 20, 1994, p. 5.
The New York Times Book Review. XCIX, January 30, 1994, p. 12.
Publishers Weekly. CCXL, November 1, 1993, p. 65.
San Francisco Chronicle. April 19, 1994, p. E5.
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