The Face on the Cutting Room Floor (1937) by Cameron McCabe

Vintage Mystery Scavenger Hunt Item: Two people

The Face on the Cutting Room Floor

Prior to reading this book, I knew it was one which is famous for its genre bending, rule breaking and unconventionality. In that respect it did live up to expectation. The Face on the Cutting Room Floor (1937) begins with the overweight and pastry loving film producer Isador Bloom, asking the Chief Cutter Cameron McCabe (author and narrator of the story), with the aid of special effects expert John Robertson to remove all of Estella Lamare’s parts from the film The Waning Moon. Bloom gives no reason for this drastic and costly decision and McCabe is not happy with it. After all taking the second female character out of a love triangle focused film does seem inexplicable. Regardless of his own opinions McCabe goes off in search of Robertson but unluckily manages to miss him, though an engaged tone on Robertson’s office phone and a recently used camera suggests he was there. Giving it up as a hopeless task, McCabe goes out for the night with his secretary Dinah Lee, though this ends unhappily at a nightclub, as McCabe sees the actress Maria Ray out with another actor, Ian Jensen, which brings his now unrequited love to the surface. Robertson also makes an appearance at the nightclub intimating that he left his offices several hours before McCabe went looking for him. This information has a significant effect on McCabe who rushes off into the night…

The following morning Estella is found dead in Robertson’s office, with wounds to her wrists. Was it suicide or a murder? Murder definitely seems the more likely option as not only is the film missing out of the camera (which Robertson left on as part of an experiment), both Bloom and another man confess to killing her. Are they telling the truth? Or if not why are they lying? Detective Inspector Smith is called in to solve the case, with McCabe seemingly taking on a form of amateur sleuthing, revealing much more startling information about the case such as finding the missing film and discovering that Maria fears Jensen being the murderer. But unsurprisingly the showing of this film creates more questions than answers and a further death also complicates the situation. Again with this death there is a question mark as to whether this was a suicide or a murder.

The Face on the Cutting Room Floor

As the investigation continues Smith and McCabe have an increasingly tense relationship, as McCabe’s role blurs and merges with others. When the case finally goes to trial notions of truth, causality and legal principles are undermined, called into question and essentially just turned inside out. Although many of the characters talk at times in a trifling manner, (making Lord Peter Wimsey’s conversational manner seem normal in comparison), this is no light hearted crime novel and the ending of the novel proper is a dark one, problematizing the issue of justice. What follows this is a metafictional epilogue, written by another character which critiques what has passed already, where the detective fiction genre is overtly turned on its head – although within this section further twists are to come…

My Thoughts

From what I have written this story doesn’t seem that bad, some may even say quite clever or quirky and maybe it is, but it is also very very very very very very BORING! I said it. Boring. The descriptors, confusing and complete nonsense would also be applicable. My problems began quite early on as the narrative cuts or jumps around a lot. This may well be an attempt to mirror film narration but in a novel it lacked continuity. Moreover there were many points in the novel where the plot made little sense, with McCabe talking in nonsensical riddles or talking with other characters in such a dialect that I had no idea what they were actually saying. The epilogue compounded these issues attempting to sound literarily clever and philosophical but was actually just convoluted nonsense which made no sense and dragged on for page after page. Consequently when the unconventional aspects happened they were rather spoilt as either my brain was so painfully numbed by the rest of the text that I couldn’t care less or the rule breaking, genre bending parts were over used. For example in the epilogue I hint there are twists to follow and I do mean in the plural, you could say there was an excess of them. But for me this parodying was overdone and therefore pointless and unsatisfying. Though to be fair I think the whole novel could have done with being shortened.

The Face on the Cutting Room Floor 2

Additionally I also found McCabe to be a hugely unlikeable unenjoyable character, which is difficult when they are the narrator. Though again, like with the aspects of the novel which turn genre rules upside down (something I usually enjoy), I think I could have appreciated or coped with McCabe’s character more easily, if the narrative style itself was not so long winded or nonsensical. I’m not kidding you can easily read a whole dialogue or a paragraph and have no idea what it was about. Moreover, the pacing in this novel was completely off, often being too slow, especially in the epilogue where I did contemplate hitting my head off the book (or even a wall) it was that painful to read. I was very close to quitting.

To be fair to the story and the writer it is a very clever book and actually had the basis for a very good film themed plot. However something I have learnt from reading this, is that a story may be exceptionally clever, but this does not matter or cannot be appreciated if the actual story is told in a poor way and if the actual reading of it is unenjoyable. Reading through pages of nonsense in this book was not made up for by its cleverness. So unsurprisingly I am not recommending this book to anyone unless you are a glutton for punishment or are keen to read an author who is not very well known.

Rating: 1.75/5


  1. I so agree with you on this one. Incredibly overrated for precisely the reasons you outline. Cleverness and plot trickery is cancelled out if the telling of the story is a jumbled confusion and filled with arty pretension. Took me forever to finish the damn book and to this day I recall absolutely nothing of it. Even reading your review I can’t remember having read it. But I know I did! It’s like I was traumatized and repressed the entire experience by burying it into an inaccessible portion of my memory bank. I have no desire to have it brought back through hypnosis or any other psychoanalytic miracle. It’s no wonder the writer hid behind the pseudonym of his main character. He was Ernest Borneman, a German writer, jazz enthusiast and intellectual who became the most lauded sexologist in his country. He wrote only this one crime novel when he was 19. His life sounds incredibly fascinating –much more interesting than his book — but I bet he was an insufferable egotist.

    Liked by 2 people

    • Glad to see I’m not the only one who thinks it overrated and I can understand why you removed it from your memory! Hoping my memory will do the same soon, as there were points where it was so boring and so nonsensical that it physically hurt my brain to read it. I might have been just about able to cope if it was just the story, but that epilogue brought a whole new meaning to boredom.


  2. Well, there you go, I remember thinking it was clever and lots of fun – but it was such a long time ago and I probably had;t read a lot of post-modern fiction at that point, so I might be less impressed now, though of course, given the vintage, the book still has an important place historically.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I don’t dispute its literary/historical significance, I think I just realised how much more important to me was that a novel be a good read in terms of prose and characterisation etc. and for me this book just fell down on the basics of what makes a good reading experience.


  3. […] Commentaries on the novel describe it as a work of ‘postmodern fakery’. Certainly I think it is a startlingly modern work, styled as a found document rather than a novel, and at times I found myself checking to make sure that the publication year was not a typo. There is a frankness about sexual relationships and power relationships that seems quite striking for the period. I came to this book with little idea about it, or its reputation as my copy is not the striking Picador Classic shown above and came without any fanfare. I didn’t even have the good sense to check Kate’s review. […]


  4. […] 10.The Face on the Cutting Room Floor (1937) by Cameron McCabe (Despite this title being well-known as a mystery which experiments with the genre and bends the rules, the end result is surprisingly boring and long-winded. This is also another book where I struggled to figure out what on earth was going on, not because the author was being delightfully cunning with red herrings, but because their approach to mystification rendered the narrative incoherent.) […]


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