The mysterious history of The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor

02 September 2016

The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor is an extraordinary post-modern detective novel from an author who remained a mystery for decades.

'All players lose. Why did you play? If you don't want to risk it, don't play. But don't tell me afterwards I didn't play fair. You didn't either . . .'

In 1930s London, actress Estella Lamare is discovered dead on the cutting-room floor of a film studio. The next day, Cameron McCabe finds himself at the centre of a police investigation.

There are multiple suspects, multiple confessors, and as the murder count rises, McCabe begins his own amateur sleuth-work, followed doggedly by the mysterious Inspector Smith.

Then, abruptly, McCabe's account ends, but The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor is not finished with us yet.

Who is Cameron McCabe? Is he victim? Murderer? Novelist? Joker?

And if not McCabe, who is the author of The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor?

That was the question on everyone’s lips when The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor was first published in 1937. Here was a book where the author’s name was also the name of the central character and where the latter part of the novel was, in fact, an epilogue written by a friend of the narrator. But who was he? No one knew the answer, and despite ecstatic reviews, books of the year selections and eight different editions, no one came forward to claim authorship.

When, in 1974, Gollancz reissued The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor they still weren’t certain who the real author was, and their best solution was to put the royalties in a trust fund and advertise for the heirs in the newspaper. That edition was reviewed by Julian Symons in the New Review and in his piece he made this bold claim: ‘A final word about the author . . . his name is Ernst Wilhelm Julius Bornemann, he worked in films, probably as a cameraman.’ The trouble was other reviewers didn’t trust him. After reading a novel made up of so many metafictional twists and turns and in which the ‘author’ disappears half way through, readers found it had become hard to know what to believe. One reviewer in the New York Review of Books warned against Symons’ assertion: ‘[this is] booby-trapped territory, and conceivably Symons is putting us on.’

Eventually, in 1981, Penguin reissued The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor and managed to track down ‘Cameron McCabe’. He was indeed Professor Ernest Borneman (previously Ernst Bornemann), a well-known German sexologist who, at the time, was leading a quiet life teaching at Salzburg University. If that authorship seems unlikely, Borneman’s earlier life is even more extraordinary. In 1933 at the age of nineteen he fled to England from Nazi Germany as a communist refugee, smuggled out of the country disguised as a member of the Hitler Youth. Two years later, he was writingThe Face on the Cutting-Room Floor in his adopted language.

It is, I think, impossible to try and summarise this man’s life, but suffice it to say it includes novel writing, rally car driving, jazz, a vast academic career, deportation to a prisoner of war camp, encounters with Bertolt Brecht and Orson Welles and – of course – expertise learned in Europe’s film cutting rooms. The best thing to do is for me to direct you to the book itself, a masterpiece of post modernism, an astonishing detective novel, and the story of an extraordinary life. There’s even a piece from Borneman himself, just in case you’re still confused by the end . . .

>>>Who was Ernest Borneman?

The new Picador Classic edition of The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor by Cameron McCabe, with an introduction by Jonathan Coe, is out September 2016.  

>>>Start reading now

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