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

There’s no good reason why a detective story
published in 1937 should be so cussedly postmodern.  
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
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
confess 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
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

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
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
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 Love Songs: The Hidden History,
published by Oxford University Press.

Publication date of this essay: August 23, 2011.
New Angles on an Old Genre
Postmodern Mystery
Postmodern Mystery is a web site
devoted to experimental, unconventional
and postmodern approaches to stories
of mystery and suspense
He kept his identity secret for almost forty
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.  
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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Other articles and feature:
50 Essential Postmodern Mysteries
The 8 Memes of the Postmodern Mystery
Selected Quotes on Detective Fiction  

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