It is hard to know quite how to categorize The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor because it is a book that actively seeks to subvert not only the reader’s expectations but their understanding of what they have read. It can be read as a somewhat hardboiled detective novel, a legal thriller, a cat and mouse game between detective and criminal or psychological crime novel yet there are ambiguities in the telling and particularly the ending that are designed to make the reader question what they have read.
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.
If I had I would likely have struggled to recognize her description of the novel as being very, very boring – at least at first. The opening of the book is certainly written in a somewhat disjointed style with short, staccato sentences that give it a punchy, hard-boiled feel but I thought the initial setup of the story was quite promising.
The book is narrated by Cameron McCabe, also credited as the author of the book though in actuality it was a German refuge, Ernest Borneman. We learn that he is a film editor who is surprised when the producer of the film he is working on comes to him and tells him to completely cut the lesser known of the two leading actresses out of the movie. Given it is a love triangle movie and McCabe judges her performances to have been excellent he cannot understand what is motivating that decision.
The next morning the actress in question is found dead in an office with cuts to her wrists. Answers to whether it was suicide or murder ought to be found in the uniquely rigged camera security system the special effects coordinator had installed in that room as a film camera starts when the door is opened but the film is missing. Soon multiple people have confessed to murdering her and the film, when it does turn up, will raise more questions than answers for Inspector Smith.
I like a lot of the ideas and story beats found in these early chapters and while I found the prose a little hard to follow at times, I appreciated the clever way the book is able to present the reader with multiple, convincing explanations of what happened each based on some logical point and in a few cases on some knowledge of the workings of the film industry. I particularly appreciated the way McCabe breaks down why the producer’s request makes no sense in a passage which struck me as very cleverly reasoned.
The problem is that the book then begins to repeat itself, a pattern that will follow all the way to the book’s conclusion. In the course of the novel we will get ten different accounts of the crime in varying degrees of detail but these are not Rashomon-style alternative perspectives but rather reiterations of the facts of the case followed by explanations designed to suggest a particular character’s guilt. Some of these are helpful but by the time we reach the first of the two most lengthy accounts, the courtroom sequence, I felt it had become tedious with little new information being imparted at all.
Why repeat the same basic facts over and over again? The author’s intentions become clear in the very lengthy epilogue that makes up the final quarter of the novel which is written in the form of a critical analysis of the manuscript from a character within the story. This makes it clear that the author wishes to subvert the reader’s expectations of what a detective story, deconstructing it to demonstrate how facts can have multiple interpretations and a story might have multiple solutions.
While quite original for the time, this approach presents several problems. The first is that because the author is seeking to withhold information about characters’ roles within the story, the reader never really gets a clear sense of who they are. Even McCabe, who narrates the novel, remains something of a mystery to the reader right up to the end.
On another, simpler level I found the epilogue grating because it feels a little smug and self-satisfied. The author creates fictional responses from real critics to the account that makes up the first three-quarters of the book and analyses and responds to these. While some of the ideas discussed are certainly intriguing, it feels indulgent and far too drawn out. There is an interesting development in the final few pages but, by then, the reader may well have abandoned the work.
For all of these complaints however, I do think that the book is frequently innovative and interesting. I particularly enjoyed the intense rivalry that emerges between McCabe and Detective Smith which I think is very cleverly developed throughout the novel and I think has a striking resolution. Similarly, I think the psychological elements of the novel are well handled, even though the characters are fairly uniformly unlikable.
The problem is that for all its inventiveness and clever ideas and observations on the detective genre, the book is just not much fun to read. It is dry, particularly in its final quarter, and while the twist in its final pages is excellent it takes far too long to get there.
Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Death by Poison (How)