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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

The Face on the
Cutting-Room Floor

Cameron McCabe
(Ernest Borneman)

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To purchase The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor

Title: The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor
Author: Cameron McCabe
Genre: Novel
Written: 1937
Length: 271 pages
Availability: The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor - US
The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor - UK
The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor - Canada
Coupez ! - France
Stumme Zeugen lügen nicht - Deutschland
La faccia tagliata - Italia
  • The Picador edition comes with an Introduction by Jonathan Coe
  • The Gregg Press (1981)/Penguin Classic Crime (1986) editions come with an Afterword that includes an extended Q & A with author Ernest Borneman

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Our Assessment:

A- : beautifully, ridiculously twisted (quite-a-bit-more-than-just-a-)crime-novel

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Le Figaro . 22/03/2018 Eric Neuhoff
The Spectator . 1/10/2016 Jeff Noon
Sunday Times . 10/10/1937 Milward Kennedy
Sunday Times . 25/8/1974 Frederic Raphael
The Times . 13/6/1974 H.R.F.Keating
The Times . 9/8/1986 Marcel Berlins
The Times . 1/10/2016 Fiona Wilson
TLS . 21/12/2016 David Collard

  Review Consensus:

  Unusual; remarkable

  From the Reviews:
  • "Romantic beyond measure, especially about nightlife in London, the novel is written in a style that no present day author could hope to replicate. Itís a bit like Somerset Maugham meeting James Joyce in a dark alleyway in Soho and one of them ending up dead, and the reader not quite able to work out which oneís the victim, and which the murderer. (...) After all these years, The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor remains a one-off, and a seriously fun document about the nature of writing. And killing people." - Jeff Noon, The Spectator

  • "If you are jaded from a surfeit of conventional detective stories, or if you are persuaded that all detective stories are made to a conventional pattern, make haste to read The Face on the Cutting-room Floor; and if you are neither, make haste to read it. (...) All this is related by McCabe, roughly, coarsely, vigorously, sometimes obscurely, but with vitality. (...) Read Cameron McCabe's story of Cameron McCabe for yourself; but for all its readability do not expect to find it easy reading." - Milward Kennedy, Sunday Times

  • "Cameron McCabe doesn't take the genre seriously at all. He is outrageously flippant, even insolent. Who does he think he is, to send up all the sacred canons of Chesterton and Co. ? (...) McCabe's tongue is more dexterous than his scissors and he certainly cuts Smith to pieces with backchat that is sometimes almost as good as Chandler. McCabe doesn't pussyfoot around: he sasses the cops and shafts the ladies. He must have been quite a shock for the Boots library readers of the suburban Thirties. (...) This section is positively Nabokovian in its piqued, captious elegance; its far from pale fire is worth the price of admission on its own. He's an insolent, bitchy bastard, McCabe, and in the literary sense at least, he gets away with murder." - Frederic Raphael, Sunday Times

  • "Well worthwhile re-issue of 1937 curiosity. (...) (F)ull of dazzling technical snook-cocking." - H.R.F.Keating, The Times

  • "The Face on the Cutting-room Floor is unique oddity in crime fiction, a virtuoso one-off with an intriguing background. (...) (T)he work has a powerful naïve urgency that more sophisticated writing lacks. (...) The whole is forceful, disturbing, and like no other detective story." - Marcel Berlins, The Times

  • "The first 200-odd pages are conventional enough, but after that the book explodes in a pyro≠technic display of self-referencing devices that have to be read to be disbelieved. (...) Mannered certainly, but far from puerile: the novel is deeply precocious and experimental and reflects the authorís admiration for Proust, Joyce, John Dos Passos, Dashiell Hammett, Aldous Huxley and, especially, Ernest Hemingway. (...) The Face on the Cutting-room Floor is far more than a quaint period piece or intellectual prank. Itís certainly a cut above other Golden Age detective fiction. (...) The Face on the Cutting-room Floor continues to baffle and delight -- it is the Tristram Shandy of whodunnits." - David Collard, Times Literary Supplement

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor can be divided into three parts. For nearly 150 pages it follows a murder investigation, narrator Cameron McCabe -- a thirty-eight-year-old cutter at a London film studio -- describing the discovery of the victims and the investigation, by Scotland Yard Inspector Smith, into their deaths. After a series of quick and often dialogue-filled chapters, this section slows down towards its end, culminating in Smith spelling out the evidence and exactly what (he believes) transpired -- and fingering the guilty party. The novel then transitions, from whodunnit mystery to courtroom drama, describing first the run-up to the trial; then, in the novel's longest chapter, the trial itself, the accused, acting as his own lawyer, defending himself in a fight for his life; and a short coda chapter, after the verdict has been handed down, that neatly (and dramatically) ties things up and sees to a sort of justice being served -- in the destruction of two of the characters. That's not the end of the novel, however: it comes with 'An Epilogue as Epitaph', by an until then relatively minor character, A.B.C.Müller, which is where the novel first veers off and then goes completely off all traditional narrative (much less mystery) rails, this epitaph-chapter taking the whole genre down with it (and yet still providing most of its satisfactions, down to how it ends with an abrupt bang).
       The story begins with a face left on the cutting-room floor, narrator Cameron McCabe directed by his boss to take a more or less completed love-triangle film and edit out one of the leads, in her entirety: "you must cut out that Estella girl, every scene with her". It's a tall -- and baffling -- order, requiring the story to be reshaped into an entirely new one -- which also cuts the young actress: "out of the chance of her lifetime" --, and McCabe isn't very enthusiastic about the arduous task. But it's not just Estella Lamare's break-out role that winds up on the cutting-room floor -- so does Estella herself.
       Not only does one, and then another character confess to her murder -- with a third suspect soon in the mix --, but there's already quickly some question as to whether it was even murder at all, or suicide. Whatever happened in the cutting-room was also captured on film -- a novel automatic camera set-up (complete with: "an ultra-fast developer developing in a tank which is fixed to the camera as part of it", so that the film is ready-to-watch as soon as it's removed from the camera) recorded the whole thing -- but the film was removed before the authorities got there ...... The film soon surfaces, clearing up what happened somewhat -- but it's also a cut version; it's a while before the whole film is revealed.
       There's also more (and less) to Estella herself: she was: "a nonentity. She never existed, The body deceased before the spirit could manifest itself". She had reinvented herself, too: her real name was Esther Lammer, and she was from the East End; she had also been married; she had suitors.
       This death is followed by another, connected one -- one that at first looks more obviously like suicide, but that is then definitively ruled out; this was definitely murder. The victim -- incontrovertibly involved in Estella's death -- had gone abroad, on the run, and yet had returned, for some reason.
       The story unfolds in fairly conventional mystery-novel fashion, presented from -- and thus limited to -- McCabe's perspective. He keeps busy, and he keeps involved, with many of those around him obviously somehow involved. He has his suspicions and his thoughts -- and sometimes acts suspiciously himself, sniffing around on his own. Early on, at a night on the town, he seems to be onto something:

     Then suddenly I had it.
     'Jesus Christ,' I said. 'The face on the cutting-room floor.'
     Dinah rose with me.
     'What's up ?'
     'Sit down,' I said. 'Listen carefully. You must keep Robertson here for at least two hours. Do what you can. Talk, dance, do anything you like. Be nice to him.'
     'That's simple,' she said. 'What are you doing ?'
     'I'm leaving.'
     'Going home ?'
     'Oh, no,' I said.
       But here, for example, he declines to follow through in his account, leaving the reader guessing. He seems to be suspicious of his colleague -- as he has good reason to --, and to want to follow up on his suspicions while he can be sure the colleague won't get in his way. But author-McCabe leaves it open-ended enough that his protagonist could certainly have other things in mind .....
       Narrator McCabe isn't very respectful in his dealings with Inspector Smith -- "the big blue-eyed boy in the case. The official sleuth" --, but it's long unclear what kind of games they are playing at; indeed, both long don't seem to realize just how high their stakes are, underestimating each other in ways that sow the seeds of both their downfalls.
       Events and suspicions get rehashed, repeatedly -- new light occasionally thrown on things, or simply considered from a different perspective: Müller notes in his Epilogue: "The pattern follows the plot: McCabe tells and retells the same story over and over again". Author McCabe long doesn't provide much clarity -- but while there are hints that his narrator might not be entirely reliable, there's no sense that he's just obfuscating; McCabe the narrator is seriously invested and seems concerned -- but then there's also an awful lot of (defensive ?) attitude there. And then there's that romantic streak too; this McCabe comes across (or wants to) as hardboiled -- but there's a softness hidden in there, and even as he writes about the various women he's involved with with a casual hardness, there's some weakness there, a sore spot.
       Smith eventually gets around to summing up the case(s) -- and he observes that:
this isn't a detective story where things have to click. This is a thing that happened. Detective stories are puzzles -- chess played with figures that look like human beings -- but they only look human: they aren't. You must decide what you want to do -- write a detective story and make things fit fine and dandy so that your readers in Walla Walla, Tooting Broadway and Kansas City Suburb like it -- in which case you must cut out the human element and concentrate on the machinery -- or you work with more less normal human beings under more or less normal circumstances -- which is real life as it is: more or less normal and far from the perfect machinery of that fine detective story you want to make out of our case here, brother Mac.
       But how true to life are these characters and their actions ? With its off-key patter and unlikely quick turns (notably those volunteering their guilt as to Estella's would-be murder), The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor has all the feel of an imitation-mystery novel -- with emphasis on the imitation, especially in the rhythm, attitude, and airs of mystery. And, as such, its reasonably successful, to that point (Smith's big reveal and explanation) -- a solid B-thriller that probably is a bit frustrating to crime fiction aficionados in not quite playing by the usual rules and maybe trying a bit too hard.
       But of course that's not all there is to it. After the crime is, or seems, solved, there's a trial -- and here again McCabe retells the story, or rather spins it yet another way. Smith carefully created a narrative that fully explains the crime, and hence who is responsible -- the how-dunnit -- but in the courtroom that narrative isn't so much demolished as hopelessly undermined. Smith is hoisted by his own petard.
       Here too success lies in not playing by the (narrative) rules: courtroom-theater is subject to strict rules of procedure -- and the defendant knows that if he goes along with these he stands no chance. Hence he acts as his own lawyer, because no lawyer would or could take the necessary approach -- using the prosecutor's case against itself, knowing: "I couldn't build up my own case and that therefore I had to make the other one's case my own". His amateur-status -- untrained in the law -- gives him additional leeway, and he plays it to the hilt.
       The trial-chapter is detailed but summary, mostly described rather than -- as much of the previous story had been -- shown played, which hammers home the point and success all the better. Its inevitable conclusion is a nice twist -- and then there's the nice concluding twist on top of it, as Smith still wants to see justice served, and the narrator accepts it (and we finally get around to learning how this account itself came to be written down).
       By this point The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor has moved from fine if probably forgettable B-thriller to sharp and decidedly memorable novel. But McCabe doesn't let readers, or his story or characters, off the hook yet. There's that epitaph-epilogue .....
       Here, a new narrator introduces himself, the unfortunately named A.B.C.Müller (who does begin by apologizing for his ridiculous name and initials: "They stand for Adolf Benito Comrade. Originally Comrade was Conrad. But to balance the allied powers o Adolf and Benito I felt obliged to introduce some left-wing appeal"). [The novel was published in 1937; you'd figure McCabe wouldn't have settled for quite such a crude joke a few years later.] McCabe ran into Müller a few times over the course of his story, and they've discussed this and other crimes -- including the memorable exchange:
     'Looks sad,' I said. 'Cameron McCabe's dear old mother'll have to cry some buckets full of tears.'
     'Why ?' he asked. 'You're not mixed up in it ?'
     'How do you know ?' I asked. 'I've done it.'
     'Have you ?' he said.
     'Looks damn much as if I had.'
     'Faked evidence ?' he asked.
     'Are you ?' I asked.
     'Am I what ?' he asked.
     'Are you faked evidence ?'
       The Epilogue is ... quite a piece of work. The premise is that Müller had been entrusted with McCabe's manuscript -- now published. And while Müller maintains that: "Everything else that could possibly be of interest to the readers of Mr McCabe's book has been said by Mr McCabe himself", he adds his two cents too, offering background as to events, a lengthy consideration of the document (emphasizing: "it is the historical and social background of the characters which explains them both to the author and to the reader") as well as to the case itself -- in which, after all he played a peripheral part (and to which he can add a few facts outside McCabe's purview), and in whose aftermath he then further injects himself.
       A significant amount of space is devoted to Müller's analysis of the state of detective fiction of the times and the reactions to McCabe's books, as he comments on invented reviews of it -- while also citing actual reviews and writings on crime fiction of the time. A bibliography of works quoted from cites reviews and works by L.P.Hartley, Cyril Connolly, W.H.Auden, Edmund Wilson, and Ernest Hemingway, among others, and the debate about the rules of the (literary) game is just one of the intriguing elements here -- including the claim that:
     Fact and fiction are constantly fighting one another. Fairness to his characters and fairness to his readers are expected of the author. And once he claimed to have written a detective story, strictest adherence to the rules of detective fiction is demanded of him.
       Author McCabe, of course, pushes these to considerable extremes, in a layered novel full of teases. It's a bravura performance -- of an odd sort. There's a youthful adaucity on display here, a brash but exceptionally well-read young interloper -- Borneman was twenty-two when his McCabe-book was published, a recent émigré from Germany, new to the language -- crashing into this traditional genre. He plays post-modern games -- at a high level -- decades before they became commonplace, and if he doesn't show quite the stylish refinement of, say, modern master Gilbert Adair, there's still a surprisingly sensitive touch to his trampling of the field.
       Once can see how The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor has become an admired but not quite loved novel, McCabe's mystery-story just a bit too rough and tumble and its dialogue almost too cinema-sharp (and ever so slightly off key) for genre-fans (especially of that 'Golden Age' time). For all its ambition, it's not a 'great' mystery -- but then, it's also far from simply being a mystery novel (even as it sticks, from first to the very last, to proving itself as such). There is no doubt, however, that The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor is a true classic and, even so many years later, when post-modern fiction seems to have exhausted all its tricks, sui generis and repeatedly stunning in just how far (and far afield) it goes.
       A truly remarkable work of fiction.

- M.A.Orthofer, 25 May 2019

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The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       German-born Ernest Borneman lived 1915 to 1995.

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© 2019-2021 the complete review

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