The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor

Cameron McCabe

Picador, £8.99

Review by Alastair Mabbott

Why it’s been 30 years since the last reprint of The Face On The Cutting-Room Floor is a mystery as perplexing as anything in the book itself. A post-modernist crime thriller which deconstructs crime thrillers, from an author whose identity remained unknown for 37 years after its publication – what could be more deserving of cult status than that?

It originally came out in 1937, and while many of its innovations may have been adopted by mainstream literary fiction it’s lost none of its power to fascinate and bemuse. Central character Cameron McCabe, who purports to be the author, works as an editor in a London film studio. A headstrong man in his late twenties, he’s fuming over his boss’s order to cut every scene featuring young starlet Estella Lamare from the film he’s working on – which, since it’s about a love triangle, completely alters the story. Later the same day, Estella is found dead in another part of the studio. It looks like suicide, but the fact that a reel of film which may have recorded her death is missing throws a more suspicious light on her demise.

McCabe makes up his mind to get to the bottom of it, and when Inspector Smith from Scotland Yard arrives the two immediately clash.

As the investigation gathers pace, Estella’s death is pushed into the background by the battle between two men who are both determined to come out on top. And what an interesting battle it is. Smith is a Canadian who came to Scotland Yard via the FBI, and McCabe a Scot who spent some years in America, and it feels as though American writers like Hemingway and Dashiell Hammett are in some way in charge of the narrative: whenever one of the principal characters is trying to get the upper hand, he breaks into mannered American idioms. It’s entirely appropriate, given the genre, and the fact that it centres on a film studio. At one stage, Smith points out: “As you will clearly remark, the film language as it is spoken is humbug Americanese.”

But although the author obviously loves detective fiction, he fiendishly subverts it. Where we’d expect the plot to move forward, we’re instead presented with recaps, albeit all slightly different from each other. Then comes the final section: a long afterword written by one of the characters, which evaluates McCabe’s story in terms of its (fake) critical reception, its place in the detective genre and its context of a modern culture which is “a sordid arena in which even the winner takes nothing”.

Eight decades on, it’s still a hugely impressive conceptual labyrinth, retaining much of the originality it would have had for its initial readers. Especially when you consider – and this isn’t giving away anything that would spoil it – that its author was Ernst Bornemann, a German emigré who was only 19, had been unable to speak English only four years earlier and had written it to test his command of his new language.