Last year, responding to some stray thoughts that brought up memories of a small number of books that I had read more than once, borrowing and re-borrowing them from Didsbury Library, but which I hadn’t read again for at least twenty years, I wrote a short series about three such. Curious as to whether I might still find them appealing, for more reason than nostalgia for the times in which I enthused over them, I hunted the books down, finding them cheaply available on eBay and Amazon, thinking to blog about the experience.
Another of those books stole back into my memory not long ago, a book easily and cheaply available on eBay, so I’m re-heading this series as Some Books, allowing me the flexibility to add to it whenever memory strikes.
The latest of these books is Cameron McCabe’s The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor.
This is a very unusual book, one that was never a commercial success, but one which has retained a reputation that, despite it always being no more than a cult interest, it has been periodically rediscovered by connoisseurs. When I first read it in the Seventies, it was in its first hardback reissue after decades of obscurity, when it was extremely difficult to find.
The novel, which was McCabe’s only book, for reasons which will be entirely understandable once I go on to describe it, was originally published in 1937. When I read it, the whereabouts of the author, or if he was still living, were unknown, and its royalties were placed in a trust fund pending the uncovering of the author who, it eventually appeared was creative polymath and scientist Ernest Borneman, a refugee from Nazi Germany whose first book in English this is.
Which makes the book all the more remarkable.
I was initially attracted to this book by it’s unusual title. I don’t know if the term is still in use today, but when the book was first published, ‘the face on the cutting-room floor’ was a film industry for an actor or actress – usually a minor one – whose entire performance was cut from the finished film.
It comes into use immediately the book starts. It’s a first person narration by McCabe himself, Scottish by birth, Canadian by upbringing, a cutter (i.e., editor) working for a film company with studios near the centre of London. He’s working simultaneously on several films, including an unnamed and complete film starring Maria Ray, Ian Jensen and Estella Lamare. Ray and Jensen are established stars, Lamare a newcomer for whom this will be her breakthrough role. Until studio boss Isador Bloom orders McCabe to cut her out of the picture completely.
This is completely unexpected. The film is about a love triangle, and cutting Estella out will not only mean extensive re-shoots, but will wreck the storyline. McCabe is naturally puzzled and seeks the advice of his fellow cutter, Robertson. But first Robertson’s phone is engaged, then his studios are empty, though his camera is warm from use, and then they’re locked. So McCabe takes his secretary, Dinah, out on the town, until they bump into Robertson and other from the studio. Robertson maintains he was out whilst McCabe was trying to contact him.
Suddenly, McCabe blurts out the title, and leaves Dinah to keep Robertson out until 3.30am whilst he disappears, on business he doesn’t disclose.
The next day, the studio is filled with the news that Estella Lamare has been found dead in Robertson’s cutting rooms.
What follows is a detective story, or is it? There is a suspicious death, which may or may not be murder. There is an Inspector of Police. An amateur who becomes deeply involved in the investigation of the crime. There is another death, a person connected to the first, maybe, victim, and this certainly is a murder.
All the accoutrements are there. It walks like a detective story, it talks like a detective story, but it definitely does not quack like a detective story.
For when the killer is exposed, it is McCabe himself. But, unlike Agatha Christie’s The Murder of Roger Ackroyd, exposure of the murderer is not the point of the story. We are at best only two-thirds of the way through the book.
McCabe is arrested, tried, defends himself, is acquitted by undermining Inspector Smith’s methods. A month later, Smith, disgraced, fired, turns up on McCabe’s doorstep, intent on killing McCabe for having cheated justice. McCabe, having become disillusioned at his ‘victory’, having failed to get what he (improbably) expected, admits to the killing, begs half an hour to finish his account of the affair (i.e., the book thus far), and then allows Smith to shoot him. Smith subsequently hangs for the murder.
But that’s not all. McCabe has finished by sending his manuscript to Müller, a minor character, a journalist, who has it published. Müller then writes a long, erudite, epilogue, explaining the book to us the readers, whilst simultaneously reviewing the combined efforts of the book’s reviewers, complete with extensive quotes (all taken, as correctly sourced, from real reviews, with only McCabe’s name etc. substituted for the original books).
People, what we have here is a deconstructionist book whole decades before deconstructionism was invented. Nor is that all: the ghost of McCabe pops up before the end to argue with Müller over his interpretation of McCabe’s ending.
What is yet more, now that the waters have been thoroughly muddied, Müller proceeds to throw in another bucket of silt in a short coda in which he bumps into Maria Ray, in which she contradicts all the endings so far given, and throws in several more theories (McCabe committed suicide to frame Smith as his murderer (!) is only one of them.)
Out of nowhere, Müller falls in love/lust with Maria, hopes she’ll marry him despite his age, she pulls a gun, he takes it off her and shoots her dead. Cautiously, the reader checks for more pages in which this story may perpetuate itself, but if they’ve got a new enough edition, will find only a long transcript of a 1979 interview with Borneman, about his life and career.
The Face on the Cutting Room Floor‘s fate in both obscurity and celebration may now be understandable. To call it bizarre is, in many ways, to underrate it. That it vanished so thoroughly after its early burst of popularity, based on the comprehensive flouting of every detective story convention ever accepted, is hardly a surprise. That it should be rediscovered and hailed as a classic by such authorities as Julian Symons and Frederic Raphael, is equally as predictable. When it was first re-issued, in the edition I read out of Didsbury Library, the publishers had no idea who Cameron McCabe was, nor if he still lived: royalties were paid into a trust fund.
The book itself is unfathomable. I know that I read it twice, once out of curiosity at the title, and a second time for reasons I can no longer recall but which were probably based to some extent in the sheer difference between this book and anything else I’d discovered in exploring a goodish-sized suburban Library. Whether I actually liked it or not is something lost to time and memory. I certainly don’t in 2015.
And this is in the main a response to tone and voice, much more than to a plot that is deliberately confusing, told by an extremely unreliable narrator. I’ll come back to that shortly, but first let’s admit that Borneman, as Müller, does a very good, very accurate job of anatomising Borneman as McCabe.
The story progresses up to Chapter 19 in a fairly brisk, lineal fashion, though with very significant gaps, which are alluded to in a manner sufficiently casual as to not draw attention to the fact that McCabe is not telling all that is happening. An alert reader would also begin to question in what manner McCabe gains large chunks of knowledge that seem to materialise out of the ether.
But from Chapter 20 onwards, the whole plot is recapitulated in every chapter, over and again, in different words, sometimes with new information revealed, most notably McCabe’s accusation and arrest. At the heart of it is a love story: more than one. Estella was having an affair with Ian Jensen, until he threw her over for Maria Ray, Bloom wanted her cut out because she refused his advances. McCabe was in love with and having an affair with Maria Ray until Jensen came between them.
Estella threatened suicide unless Jensen came back to her. Jensen tried to take the knife off her but her wrist still got cut. McCabe found the film of this, edited it to look like murder and blackmailed Jensen into leaving England. When he returned, McCabe poisoned and shot him. But (and this comes as a total surprise to him after he slanders her as promiscuous in defending himself, Maria won’t come back to him, which is why he’s willing to let Smith off him.
But Cameron McCabe is simply a deeply unpleasant person to be around. He’s the kind of guy who knows himself to be infinitely smarter than everyone else around him. He has an opinion on everyone and everything and all of it is nothing more than an unpleasant stink beneath his nostrils. He’s the kind of guy who will sleep with a woman with whom he’s besotted and despise her for having sex out of marriage.
And he’s so fuckingly, grindingly self-important, with his perpetual dispensing of opinions, his utter conviction that he and only he truly understands, his barely repressed loathing for the rest of humanity. He talks in a semi-American film dialect, a never-ending slang that gets old long before the book does, judging and condemning and generally coming over as a complete pain-in-the-arse. In fact, he reminds me of this guy on one of the fora I use…
As for Herr Müller with the two dots above the u, he is no better in his own way. His Epitaph is yet another demonstration by someone being conspicuously clever, one-upping McCabe by showing off his erudition, with his ‘enhancing’ of McCabe until the latter pops up for one final even-smarter-than-you session.
It made for heavy going reading and an overall impression of the author as smartarse showing off. Though as a German refugee writing in an English he was still in the process of learning, it has to be allowed that Ernest Borneman was indeed very clever, as his subsequent career showed.
Nevertheless, it doesn’t make for a book to be retained for further reading. At least I shalln’t be tempted by faltering memory to give this one a further try-out in 2035, should I live so long.