The Face on the
Cutting-Room Floor
by Cameron McCabe
Reviewed by Ted Gioia

There’s no good reason why a detective story
published in 1937 should be so cussedly
postmodern.  But
The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor
is just that.  Over the course of 200 pages, our
mysterious author—whose
identity remained a secret
until 1974—dishes up enough
intertextual intrigue and meta-
narrative mischief to keep a
Yale graduate seminar busy
for a full semester.  I'm not
surprised that crime fiction
author Julian Symons called
this novel "the detective story
to end all detective stories."

Here readers encounter a text
within a text, a mystery story
that keeps on returning to its own first principles, a
possibly unreliable narrator, and a crazy-quilt
deconstruction of the entire tale akin to what
Roland Barthes attempted in
S/Z.  The author of
the book inevitably enters the story as a character—
also as a murder suspect.   Famous literary critics
are eventually drawn into the mix, where they offer
conflicting opinions in a cascade of misattributed
quotes.  Different interpretations of the text clash
and contradict each other—not just outside the
text, but in the very pages of the novel.   The
extravagance of the whole is so extreme, that the
reader barely blinks an eyelash when the author
starts comparing his work to James Joyce's
Ulysses
and the paintings of Picasso.   

In short, this is a novel that doesn’t want to settle
for being just a novel.  It also wants to fill the role
of a commentary on itself, and on the detective
story genre in general.   

The book starts out with no hints of the excesses
to come.  An actress’s body is found in a film
editor's office, the fatal wound either a sign of
suicide or evidence of murder.  But this
straightforward opening gambit soon develops
into a series of maddeningly complex variations.  
No fewer than three people step forward to con-
fess to the murder.  Then it turns out that a
camera had filmed the whole event, and the
footage indicates that the actress took her own
life.  Or did she?

But the reader ought not get too focused on
this
crime—it’s all just misdirection.  The real murder
has yet to take place in this novel.  And, yes, there
is a detective, but he falls several notches below
Sherlock Holmes—and, for all we know, might be
a murderer himself.  The fakeouts and stutter steps
continue unabated until the novel’s conclusion.  
Even the final page throws a parting curveball.

The experimental quality of the story coexists
with a great degree of banality.  Many scenes are
awkward and formulaic, almost to an unbearable
extreme.  The dialogue often sounds like a bad
parody of a Hollywood crime movie script—and
the reader is not quite sure whether this is a sign
of the author's clumsiness, or part of a deliberate
effort to poke fun at the movie industry.   Many
years later, when the author was identified as
Ernest Borneman—the anglicized name of Ernst
Bornemann, a refugee from Hitler’s Germany who
had settled in London—the real story behind the
odd writing emerged:  Borneman had arrived in
his new country knowing very little English, and
was still learning the language when he wrote
The
Face on the Cutting-Room Floor
.  

Other writers have written books which keep
returning to their own starting points—such as
Raymond Queneau's
Exercises in Style or Italo
Calvino's
If On a Winter's Night a Traveler—but the
mystery genre is especially resistant to retelling
and rereading.  Once the reader knows "who
done it," once the puzzle is solved and justice
served, the allure of the story dissipates.  But
Borneman delivers a quirky exception to the rule
in
The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor, a mystery in
which the same facts are recounted again and
again, yet with a different twist at each retelling.  
According to the author’s own tabulation, the
story is related nine separate times—but even that
admission comes too soon, since at least two more
retellings takes place after the final count—include
one from a dead witness.

Sir Herbert Read commented, when this novel was
first released:  "This thriller is cunningly
constructed on the formula of the Hegelian triad:
thesis, antithesis, synthesis."  The author describes
the same effect in more matter-of-fact terms,
explaining that "every time the story is told you
learn more about it, new clues are discovered, new
facts are disclosed, you see the thing from a new
angle."  Yet I’m not so sure—I suspect that some
of these accounts do more to mislead than inform,
and I could imagine more than a few readers
debating the murderer’s identity even after
finishing this peculiar and unprecedented book.


Ted Gioia's latest book is The Birth (and Death) of
the Cool
.
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devoted to experimental, unconventional
and postmodern approaches to stories
of mystery and suspense
He kept his identity secret for almost forty
years.   
The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor was
published in 1937 as a novel by author
Cameron McCabe—who is also a lead
character, narrator and
prime suspect in the
book.  When the work
was reissued in 1974,
the real name of the
novelist remained un-
known, and royalties
were placed in a trust
awaiting his identifi-
cation.  A few months
later, Julian Symons determined that
Cameron McCabe was actually Ernest
Borneman, one of the most intriguing
intellectuals of the middle decades of the
20th Century.  During this period, Borneman
was at the cutting edge of whatever was new
and exotic.  He was one of the first critics to
write seriously about jazz music.  He worked
alongside radical psychologist Wilhelm Reich.  
He hung out with Bertolt Brecht.  He
collaborated on a film project with Orson
Welles.  He was a pioneer in the field of
sexology, as it struggled for legitimacy and
wider acceptance.  And, yes, he wrote crime
fiction—works as unconventional as the man
himself.   In his final years, Borneman lived
in Austria, where he committed suicide at age
80th birthday after the unhappy end of a love
affair.  
ROGUES GALLERY:
CAMERON McCABE
Further Clues:

Obituary for Ernest Borneman

Overview of The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor

Nicholas Royle on The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor
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