The Face on the Cutting Room Floor by Cameron McCabe

CuttingRoomIt 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)

The Case of the Sulky Girl by Erle Stanley Gardner

SulkyGirlI enjoyed my first taste of Perry Mason with The Case of the Velvet Claws and I was intrigued that the end of that book leads directly into this second volume. At the end of that novel we are told that a ‘sulky girl’ is waiting to meet with Perry and this picks up moments later.

The girl is Frances Celene, a wealthy heiress who has come to consult Perry about the terms of her father’s will. The terms of the will are quite unusual and feature a number of provisions. The most important one as far as we are concerned is that her father specifies that if she marries before she turns twenty-five she will receive a small lump sum and the remainder of her trust fund will be turned over to charitable causes. She is hoping that Perry might be able to challenge the terms of that will to enable her to marry early and still keep the money.

Her father had placed Frances’ Uncle Edward, a stubborn but rigorously honest man, in charge of administering the trust fund he had created for his daughter and had afforded him an unusual degree of discretion. When he looks at the will, Mason notes that in the event of Uncle Edward’s death the entire sum of money goes directly to Frances. Quicker than you can say motive for murder, Edward is found dead in his study and Mason has a client who on the face of it looks pretty guilty.

In the early chapters of the story Gardner’s careful construction of circumstances is quite evident. For instance, the terms of the will are designed specifically to seem to implicate several characters and to create the sense that all of the evidence will be pointing towards Frances’ guilt. This can make those opening chapters feel a little awkward and artificial, yet I appreciated the clever way this evidence is constructed because it helps build the reader’s anticipation as they try to figure out how Mason will puncture the DA’s story.

There is a point in the lead up to the trial where Perry Mason explains that he is staking his case all on one big knockout punch of evidence. The idea is that it is better to allow some of the prosecution’s case against his client to go unchallenged because when he demonstrates that one key aspect of that case is wrong, the drama of that moment will make that revelation seem all the more devastating. Gardner has a very similar experience in mind for the reader and I think it largely works.

The solution is not mind-bendingly clever or audacious, nor is it necessarily one that the reader can prove in advance but they ought to be able to conceive what Perry intends to do before he pulls it off. The reader should also be able though to identify the actual guilty party and provide a reason based on the evidence they are given earlier in the novel.

I felt it was a satisfying, interesting case and while I appreciated that the previous novel never had Perry Mason set foot in a courtroom, I did enjoy the court scenes here which play out with much more pace and energy than I am used to in legal thrillers. His thinking is clear and pretty easy for the reader to follow and I appreciated the rivalry that is built up here between him and the Assistant DA.

The characters are fine and I can say that I found Frances Celene far less tiresome than I did the exasperating “Eva Griffin” in the previous novel. The personalities are not as strong as some of those that featured in Velvet Claws but they suited the story well. Having enjoyed her in the first novel, I was a little disappointed that Della Street makes only a very fleeting appearance and has little to contribute beyond placing calls. I did like the moment where she reveals just how much faith she has in his abilities though. Similarly Paul Drake does not get much to do here.

While I think Perry Mason’s second case is a little less flashy than his first, I did find this to be a more entertaining and well-balanced read. The courtroom scenes are strong and though the resolution may not shock, the process getting there is interesting and clever. The ending of this novel sets up The Case of the Lucky Legs and as I seem to be getting the rhythm of these, I am sure I will be revisiting the courtroom with Perry Mason at some point soon.

The Case of the Velvet Claws by Erle Stanley Gardner

VelvetClawsPrior to picking up The Case of the Velvet Claws I had never read a Perry Mason but it has been on the reading bucket list for me, especially knowing that JJ rates Gardner as one of his four Kings of Crime. While I could, no doubt, have started somewhere in the middle of his run it seemed to me to make sense to take a look at the character as he first appeared.

The novel opens with a woman walking into Perry Mason’s office to hire him to represent her in negotiations with a gossip rag, Spicy Bits, after she was spotted at an inn with an aspiring politician following a holdup. It turns out that she is a married woman and her concern is that if the reporters were to pursue the story that her own indiscretion would be revealed.

As you might expect, events will soon take a bloody turn and Mason’s client will be accused of a murder. However that is all you’re going to get from me in terms of a summary as if you haven’t read this already I would hate to spoil your fun. The book is something of a rollercoaster, packing several satisfying revelations and plot reversals into a compact and punchy story.

Much of this success stems from the characterization of Eva, the young woman who hires Mason as her lawyer. She is a slippery customer who refuses from the start to be straight with him, offering up a false name and giving the detective that is sent after her the slip when he tries to discover her identity for himself. In other circumstances she might be something of a femme fatale and certainly Della, Mason’s secretary, seems to worry that she has some sort of hold over him, rendering him incapable of exercising good judgment with her case. Frequently she works against her lawyer, lying to him and throwing obstacles in his way, and often making herself look more guilty in the process.

In spite of his client’s behavior, Mason remains absolutely committed to pursuing her interests and securing her freedom. He explains it rather eloquently in a speech he gives to Della, telling her ‘when you do take them, you’ve got to give them all you’ve got’. He does give a few variants of this speech at points in the novel, arguably weakening its impact, but Gardner establishes this as the key theme of the work and the circumstances Mason will find himself in should test that to the extreme.

Mason is established as being calm, perceptive and aggressive in pursuing his clients’ interests and one of the most gratifying aspects of this novel was seeing how he responds to the situations Eva puts him in. He certainly proves himself to be resourceful and it is impressive to see how he can predict and stay ahead of events for so much of the narrative. Because he is so confident however and never seems shaken in his beliefs, I do think the cost to him of his actions risks being underplayed.

Gardner gets around this problem by taking the time to flesh out the character of his secretary, Della Street, who seems to care for her boss quite a lot and is worried about how the case will affect him. Her reactions to those seemingly reckless choices help establish and reinforce the danger of his actions, putting them in perspective and providing some conflict while I think her affection for him also helps to humanize him.

While Della is quite clearly intended to play the role of a secondary character in this adventure I did appreciate that Gardner does give her a back story that makes her feel more dimensional than the usual secretary who is in love with her boss. This is brought out in discussion of her feelings about Eva which seem to border on jealousy, both with regards Mason’s reaction to her but also about their comparative social and economic situations. She resents how easy Eva’s life has seemed to be and in doing so begins to explicitly draw a comparison between the two women, helping to better define each of them.

Both Eva and Della are certainly colorful and complex female characters but I do not wish to give the impression that this is a more progressive piece than it actually is. The novel, published in 1933, certainly reflects some social attitudes of the time and Mason can be somewhat dismissive of his assistant’s thoughts and feelings as well as fairly scathing towards his own client. This is not the character’s most attractive side but it does feel pretty realistic to the era.

When it comes to the conclusion, I think Gardner does manage to come up with something that struck me as unexpected and I enjoyed learning how the various aspects of the story pieced together. In particular there is one aspect of the solution that struck me as quite ingenious to the point where I wondered if a key piece of information could possibly be accurate, leading me to do a little research. I was very pleasantly surprised to find that it was and I think it does make for a rather elegant solution to what happened to a piece of evidence.

For those who expect a story like this to have a courtroom resolution, it was rather refreshing to find a legal thriller that features no court scenes at all.  Instead it focuses on the lawyer’s life outside the court and the work that can be done to try to prevent a case from ever appearing before a judge at all. I certainly think it works well here and while I gather that subsequent stories in the series would not follow this plan, it does help to mark the story apart.

Will I be making a follow-up appointment to see this particular lawyer? I feel pretty confident you will. For one thing the novel ends on an exchange that sets up the following title, The Case of the Sulky Girl and while I am not sold on that as a title I am sufficiently intrigued by that exchange to read on.

Vintage Mysteries Challenge: Book made into film/tv/play (Why)

The Collini Case by Ferdinand von Schirach

ColliniThe Collini Case opens with a moment of brutality as Fabrizio Collini walks into a hotel room where Hans Meyer, a man in his eighties, is staying and viciously kills him. He then reports himself to the Police and waits calmly in the lobby to be taken into custody. He freely admits that he was responsible and offers no explanation for why he has committed the crime.

His court-appointed lawyer, Casper Leinen, has only been qualified for two months and has never defended a case before. He is already stumped about how he will mount a defense when he learns that he has a personal connection to the case that causes him to doubt whether he should have taken the case in the first place.

While I have described The Collini Case as a legal thriller for the purposes of categorization on this blog, it is perhaps better described as having two clear themes that it develops. The first is the question of the role the public defender must play and their responsibility to a client, even if they do not like them. This is best summed up in an early conversation between Leinen and his adversary and mentor, the prosecution lawyer Professor Richard Mattinger, which is recalled at several points throughout the work.

The second theme concerns the nature of justice and its relationship to the law. My determination not to provide spoilers in my reviews prevents me from being more explicit about how that manifests in this case but as this book draws on aspects of the author’s own life that he referred to in interviews around the time this was released in the English-speaking market, a quick Google search should give you a little more context on what precisely is being discussed here.

Not that this will be much of a mystery for many readers. While these questions suggest that this book might be a mystery, the context of the crime makes motivation quite easy to infer within the first few chapters and so our focus remains fairly tightly on these two themes.

That tight thematic focus is reinforced by the structure of the book which only presents us with the steps in the trial that most clearly relate to the novel’s themes. The actual trial itself is confined to just a couple of chapters at the end of the novel and focuses almost entirely on a single cross examination of a witness. This is not ineffective but it may lead some to question whether it can really be called a mystery or a legal thriller at all.

As I finished reading the novel I was struck by a comparison to a work by John Grisham, The Confession. In that novel Grisham seems to be primarily writing to make a political point about the death penalty and aspects of the plot are developed in service of that theme. The Collini Case takes a similarly campaigning approach to its storytelling, especially in some of the comments made during that long cross examination sequence but its brevity and the tone of the ending keep this from feeling manipulative.

The downside of that brevity is that it does not allow space for supporting characters to develop. Arguably the key character of Johanna never quite makes her stamp on the narrative, being seemingly portrayed more as a representation of what Leinen is giving up for the sake of the case rather than a fully fleshed out character in her own right. This is particularly frustrating because her perspective on the case ought to be so interesting based on her own involvement and because her first interaction with Leinen after he accepts the case is one of the most powerful moments in the book.

In spite of some weak characterization, I did appreciate how well this book devotes itself to its themes and I did appreciate the spartan prose style the writer adopts. While the mystery content is lacking, it will interest readers with an interest in criminal justice systems and its themes lend themselves well to discussion. Though this didn’t entirely hit the spot for me,  I would certainly be curious to try another of von Schirach’s works in the future.