Notes on reading

The cutting room floor and after

Ernest Borneman

We went down downstairs to the little dark-green room with lamps hidden behind green silk and sat down and listened to the band playing blues and watched the hips and breasts of the women dancing and drank and smoked those sweet American cigarettes which taste as if they are drugged.

(The Face on the Cutting Room Floor – Cameron McCabe)

In his history of crime fiction, Bloody Murder, Julian Symons called it ‘the detective story to end detective stories… a dazzling and perhaps fortunately unrepeatable box of tricks’. More recently Jeff Noon, in a Spectator review, described it as ‘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 one’s the victim, and which the murderer’. I’d read a few references to Cameron McCabe’s novel, The Face on the Cutting Room Floor over the years and had half-remembered it as a possibly interesting read I might get round to reading someday. Though the book was first published in 1937, Cameron McCabe, whoever he had been, was not a name that cropped in the standard discussions of detective fiction’s Golden Age. I guessed the book was a one-off, an oddity whose author had vanished into obscurity.

It was re-issued as a Picador Classic five years ago, with an introduction by the novelist Jonathan Coe, and that’s the edition I got round to at last. I have to tell you, Reader, I was disappointed. Having said that, the book gets off to a cracking start. 1930s London — its high and low streets, pubs and nightclubs, smart apartments and cheap lodgings, the film studio where most of the main characters work — is evoked in sparing but telling detail. A lot of the speech is peppered with an Americanized slang, which may or may not be how hip Londoners spoke at that time. And not far into it, you realize that Cameron McCabe is not only the name of the author but also the name of the protagonist, the first-person narrator. What’s going on there?

I won’t describe the plot in detail (see the Wikipedia page if you’re interested) but the inciting incident is the apparent murder of a young actress in one of the studio’s cutting rooms, an actress whom McCabe, a film editor, has been asked to excise from a film that’s just been shot. The investigation is led by an Inspector Smith of Scotland Yard, a most peculiar detective who gets more peculiar as the story progresses. Indeed, the whole novel gets more peculiar as it progresses, and not, I think, in a good way. McCabe the author begins to play with his readers, using devices such as the unreliable narrator, a kind of post-modern deconstruction, and what Coe identifies as Brecht’s alienation technique. It all gets very tedious after the opening third.

But I got to the end of it and then read the Afterword, the bulk of which is an interview with the author. It turns out that the real Cameron McCabe was a much more intriguing character than the fictional one. Ernest Borneman, a Jew and a member of the Communist Party, fled Nazi Germany in 1933 and was granted asylum in England. Four years later, when he was just twenty-two, The Face on the Cutting Room Floor was published. He published two more novels (not as Cameron McCabe), worked for the BBC, collaborated with Orson Welles, set up West Germany’s public television service, and wrote extensively on the history and forms of jazz music. Then, in the mid-1960s, after a long interest in psychoanalysis, he embarked on a course of scientific research into sexuality, eventually becoming one of Germany’s leading sexologists. The interview in the Picador edition provides a lot more detail and incident than I can go into here, but as careers go, that’s quite a varied one.

Talking about The Face on the Cutting Room Floor, Borneman says, in a letter also included in the Picador afterword, that it was written when he was nineteen, a refugee newly arrived in London. The novel ‘was meant to be no more than a finger exercise on the keyboard of a new language. It had no message and wasn’t meant as a spoof on the great masters of the crime story. I simply wanted to know if my English was good enough to let me earn money with my pen’. Borneman was puzzled by its cult status. ’I shall never know why The Face on the Cutting Room Floor, which seems mannered and puerile to me now, has been re-issued so often…’

Borneman’s own assessment of his first novel, written at a distance of more than forty years is too harsh but he’s right about it being mannered. Still, it’s an extraordinary piece of work for a very young man still adapting to a language and a culture not his own. I’m glad I read it and I don’t regard that time as wasted. And now I know more about the man behind the pseudonym, I’m intrigued enough to want to read his two other novels, which he rated much higher than that first.

Ernest Borneman and Sigrid Standow

Borneman died in 1995 in Germany. His was a not a peaceful death. After a colleague half his age left him for a younger man, he took his own life. It was a plot twist worthy of a crime novel. Just two months before his suicide, the colleague concerned, Dr Sigrid Standow, had arranged the publication of a festschrift to celebrate Borneman’s 80th birthday. The cover of the book featured a photograph of Standow, naked, in front of a besuited Borneman. What a novel Borneman’s own life would make.