In 2001, the then-independent Harvill Press saved four great London novels from oblivion by publishing handsome new editions of Henry Green’s Caught (1943), Gerald Kersh’s Fowlers End (1957), Alexander Baron’s The Lowlife (1963) and Maureen Duffy’s Capital (1975). The London Fiction Series boasted beautiful photographic covers, the design and typography were inspired by Harry Beck’s London Underground map, and the texts were introduced with essays by Jeremy Treglown, Michael Moorcock, Iain Sinclair and Paul Bailey respectively. The next tranche of titles was to include Cameron McCabe’s 1937 novel The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor, but, when the Harvill Press was swallowed up by Random House, the series was killed off. Some time before the axe fell, however, I had been invited to write an introduction to McCabe’s novel, which I decided to structure around his locations, since one of the many strengths of this outstanding avant garde crime novel is its sense of place.
The introduction begins with an introduction to the introduction.
Who killed the actress Estella Lamare? Was it the actor Ian Jensen, ‘his face like a Copenhagen hairdresser’? Or studio boss Bloom – ‘Sweat always showed on his neck, never on his forehead. He was too fat. He loved French pastries and Viennese strudel’? Christensen, another Scandinavian and Jensen’s friend, is also a suspect: ‘I killed her by accident yesterday at about half past seven,’ he confesses. That Estella committed suicide, however, remains a possibility. Surely the answer will be provided by the film from editor John Roberton’s automatic infrared camera, since Estella died in Robertson’s office in front of his automatically triggered device? And what part will be played by Cameron McCabe, chief cutter and author of the present work, The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor?
KING’S CROSS ROAD
Film studios and central locations do not mix. Not in the twenty-first century. It’s no accident that of all the big old film studios around London, Pinewood is the only one that’s still going, it being a good hour’s haul from Wardour Street. To churn out Bond films you need plenty of space: sound stages, outdoor lots. It wasn’t always this way. In the 1930s, film studios were as common throughout inner London as video shops are today. The death – murder, unlawful killing or suicide? – that kickstarts the labyrinthine plot of The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor, that of Estella Lamare, occurs at an unnamed film studio on King’s Cross Road, where McCabe is the editor-in-chief.
Bloom orders McCabe to cut Estella from the picture they’ve just shot, but Estella will die from blood loss before the night’s out, two small cuts on her left arm just above the wrist. ‘Cut it down, make it snappy,’ McCabe urges Macauley, the studio doorman, the following morning, when Macauley launches into a long-winded account of the discovery of the body. In his role as narrator and, unusually, author of The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor, McCabe is constantly cutting, editing the text, shaping the material, controlling the release of information, concealing evidence and revealing it only when it suits his purpose. That he may be an unreliable narrator is signalled early on as a couple of clues are dropped like unwanted frames to the cutting-room floor.
An apparently random meeting at the nearby tube station has significant bearing on how the action will develop. ‘Then I was suddenly in the crowd of clerks and typists rushing towards King’s Cross Met station and was dragged with them and swept away and did not resist.’ By the newspaper stall in front of the tube, he is approached by a ‘pink-faced old man’; McCabe notes the man’s ‘brownish-grey hair like gunmetal’. This man, Müller, will later take over the responsibility of care for the manuscript of The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor, arranging for its serial publication and writing an extensive ‘epilogue as epitaph’. Confused? You will be. Entertainingly so.
The sense of being caught up in a tide of humanity at King’s Cross is little different today. No doubt the surrounding refreshment opportunities are are more garish and profoundly, viscerally unpleasant than their 1936 equivalents, but essentially it’s the same King’s Cross.
For all his resourceful use of London locations and authentic scene setting, McCabe is surprisingly slapdash when it comes to the details. He has rooms in Bennett Street, a side street off St James’s Street only yards from Piccadilly, which in reality is spelled Bennet Street. King’s Cross Road is on one occasion referred to as King’s Cross Street (there is no King’s Cross Street, just as, in SW1, there is no Bennett Street), and the real Mecklenburgh Square, which we will come to, appears in the novel as Mecklenburg Square. The spellings of these street names in 1936 were no different to those of today.
One night, lying in his bed in Bennett Street unable to sleep, McCabe takes us on an imaginary journey through central London:
[display quote] ‘I heard a car passing outside and I followed its course through Bennett Street and up to St James’s Street and then already lost in the noise of Piccadilly. Curious how many movements there were going on all through the night. So many movements of things and men. I tried to see the things which were going on now side by side. I kept on following the car though I could not hear it any more. I thought it would probably go through Piccadilly to Piccadilly Circus and then it would turn left into Regent Street and up to Oxford Street but it could also go on straight across Leicester Square to Charing Cross Road and then up to Tottenham Court Road and into Bloomsbury where Maria lived…
‘And then suddenly I remembered the streets again. And the first thing I remembered were the arches under Adelphi, now broken up; the dark gangways underground and the old woman there sleeping on rags and yesterday’s news with the water dripping from above and the cats hunting rats in the wine cellars and on top of the arches at the front entrance of the Savoy tails and evening gowns were leaving for some late club in Greek Street or Frith Street or Soho Square and I knew that I remembered it quite clearly now and I followed those tails and gowns on their way where they would never meet the navvies working all night nor the London Transport repair gang hammering on the rails of the trams in the light of their acetylene flares and I thought that all over London in the cold coffee stalls they were drinking their teas and oxos and bovrils and eating steak and kidney pies now in the night which is always wet in London in the autumn so that your coat feels damp and awkward when you see the sun coming up red over Whitechapel.’ [end display quote]
As well as demonstrating McCabe’s affinity for London, this passage reveals his fondness for long, lyrical sentences: the final sentence contains 184 words, but even that is dwarfed by the following 411-word epic from a later novel, Tremolo (1948), by the same author (a character, Mack, is speaking):
[display quote] ‘”Four o’clock in the morning, the place shut, all the customers gone, the band packing up their instruments, then someone has a tune he just wants to try out before going home and he sits down by the piano, his hat on, one sleeve maybe in his overcoat already, and he plays it mean and low, and the other guys, putting a clarinet in its case or a bundle of sheet music in a trunk, they all stop and listen, one after another, and slowly they begin to unpack again, the drummer maybe starts it soft with the brushes on the back of the trunk, then the guitar picks it up, slow and easy, four to the bar, single-string stuff, then the bass comes in, still low and easy, then the others, one by one, someone’s already turned off the light and no one bothers to turn it on again, outside you hear the early morning trains going by in the dawn, the milk cart comes clattering down the street, the windows are still closed and the curtains shut, the air thick with all the smoke and liquor of the night, and you open the curtains, and you stand there, glass in hand, and listen to the band, you stand by the window, alone, and watch the dawn come up with that end-of-the-world feeling at the close of another night, and you’re so druink you almost believe all’s well with the world and God’s in his heaven and something’s sure to haappen if you only stay up another five minutes, and by then the band’s playing the blues, the real low-down end-of-the-world blues at five in the morning, all night till dawn, can’t sleep, and the birds crying on the roof tops, a train whistle blowing far away on a railroad track and a steamer hooting in the harbor, outbound to a place you’ve never been, and only a minute ago you were happy with everything left behind and now miserable again with all of it the same as before, and you think of all the things you should have done when you were young and you know your life is running out, and there it is now, a step in a street at dawn, a voice calling in the fog, the trail of a woman’s feet going away in the snow, a tune heard long ago, don’t know where, maybe in your mother’s nursery or in a whorehouse in Chicago…”‘ [end display quote]
I say ‘the same author’ despite the fact that The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor is the only book in the British Library catalogue to bear McCabe’s name. Tremolo, taken up by Alfred Hitchcock but never filmed, is the work of Ernest Borneman – McCabe by another name. His own name, in fact, although again the spellings have been inconsistent over time. The author may have been born Ernst Wilhelm Julius Bornemann, but the name on the cover of Tremolo or, for that matter, The Man Who Loved Women (1968), is Ernest Borneman. Born and raised in Germany, Borneman moved to England in the 1930s and later to the US and Canada, so the anglicising of the name is understandable. He wrote in English rather than German and forgot so much of his mother tongue over the years that he had to relearn it when he moved back to West Germany in 1960 to run a television station and write or edit non-fiction works such as Lexicon of Love and Psychoanalysis of Money.
The prose style of The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor is uneven, veering from the ruthlessly stripped-down (‘Smith nodded. The copper opened the door. Smith made a sign to me to enter. I entered. Smith followed’) to the kind of lyricism exhibited in the long quotation above, via deliberate awkwardness, problems with grammar and straightforward errors of laziness such as tautology (‘she was weary and tired’). It’s tempting to forgive the infelicitous phrasing and simple mistakes as an inevitable corollary of writing in a foreign language, but when McCabe is forced to abandon the narrative a little over half way through, handing over to Müller, the style becomes more precise, more consistent. McCabe, however, retains the edge over Müller in terms of readability. Some of the time it isn’t pretty, and it often shouldn’t work, yet, somehow, it does. By the end of his novel-writing career, Borneman had succeeded in combining supreme readability and elegance of style to seductive effect. With The Man Who Loved Women (‘She began to swish her hips and my thoughts began to turn towards the laws of thermodynamics. There are many other ways, I thought, to convert movement into heat. But there can be few others to turn heat more effectively into movement’), he went out on a high.
Maria Ray lives the life of Riley. Not only is she adored by every man around her, but she also gets to walk to work. Mecklenburg Square, where her flat is situated, is two minutes’ stroll from King’s Cross Road. ‘It was cool and quiet here, the trees smelled fresh and dewy,’ writes McCabe. ‘It was lovely to have this big open space with Brunswick Square on the left and Mecklenburg Square on the right. I took the right turning into the Square and then the left one into the dead-end which has still kept the curiously haughty mood of eighteenth-century Bloomsbury, feudally dignified and aristocratically secluded, but all this in a strangely ludicrous way because this was London with tubes running underneath and the streetcars rattling along Gray’s Inn Road and sometimes from above the sound of the mail planes going south in the night.’
Relatively traffic-free, even during rush hour, and with its beautiful terraces having had a wash and brush-up since the 1930s, Mecklenburgh Square retains the same sense of being a temporal enclave in 2002. One looks around for the figure of McCabe exiting Maria’s front door and stepping across to his car parked casually outside. He may be in love with Maria, and that may be the key to understanding McCabe’s actions, but it won’t prevent him from sacrificing her reputation when it becomes necessary for him to do so.
Jensen has a flat in Guilford Street, just around the corner from Mecklenburgh Square, handy since he is McCabe’s rival for Maria’s affections. But when Jensen reappears after the death of Estella Lamare, it’s in an unprepossessing lodging house in Delilah Square.
Delilah Square, according to McCabe, ‘was a curious little street in the Abbey Road district. It was one of those old streets which drive you crazy because the other end of the street has another name and the street turns three times, once to the right, then to the left, and finally it leads you with an odd angle into some sort of blind alley. You pass the house three times before you know it is the one you are looking for because you keep your eyes on the other side of the street and that side has another name.’
There is no Delilah Square in the Abbey Road district now and nor was there then. A little gumshoe legwork and judicious use of an A–Z establishes that McCabe was writing about Alma Square and Hamilton Gardens, located just behind Abbey Road Studios and featuring the same tortuous layout that McCabe ascribes to Delilah Square. It’s the perfect location for a trap, into which McCabe is lured not once but twice, by his rival (Jensen) and nemesis (Detective Inspector Smith). You never really know where you are; even residents must sometimes lose their way. On one stretch, the house numbers go: 36, 54, 38.
McCabe remarks on the strangeness of Jensen’s presence in Delilah Square. ‘With his income,’ he writes, ‘he could have lived in the Savoy or in the Dorchester. But there he was in a cheap furnished house in Delilah Square.’ There may have been cheap furnished houses in Alma Square in 1936, but these days most of these handsome four-storey townhouses and early Victorian terraces with their Gothic arched doorways are owner-occupied, lines of silver birch separating front gardens from the Ferraris, Jaguars and latest-model Mercs parked out front. It’s doubtful even the likes of Ian Jensen would be able to raise the mortgage on one of these babies.
It may at first seem odd that, whereas most locations appear as themselves, even if spelled incorrectly, Alma Square undergoes a more radical name change. But it’s no odder than Borneman masquerading as McCabe.
McCabe, according to what he tells Müller, is a Scotsman raised in the US. Müller (he’s very fussy about the ‘U with two dots’) seems to be a German who settled in England. Borneman, as we have said, was a German who fleed the Nazis to come first to England and was then deported to Canada. After an initial encounter with Müller at King’s Cross, McCabe goes to Fleet Street to seek a second meeting with the man he believes to be the boxing reporter for the Evening Express.
Fleet Street has changed almost beyond recognition, the newspapers having moved out east. The Daily Express Building is still there, albeit with new tenants. Completed in 1932, Owen Williams’s creation is the most dramatic example of art deco in central London, sheathed as it is in a chrome and black glass curtain wall. The new occupiers are Goldman Sachs, a sign of the times. The pub in Fetter Lane, to which Müller and McCabe retire to continue their conversation, is now part of the Hogshead chain where you can down pints and stuff your face with tuna and cheese melt or cajun chicken. A request for two pink gins – which Müller orders from the ‘pubster’ – is likely to result in your leaving red-faced and thirsty.
Müller’s role in The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor is crucial yet difficult to elucidate without giving too much away. Milward Kennedy, a critic, wrote in the Sunday Times: ‘I have found it difficult to give any idea of it without spoiling it, and I would not do that for worlds.’ Since I must assume that at least a handful of readers will not tackle the novel itself until they have read these introductory pages (despite the fact that, as we all know, an introduction is best enjoyed after the work itself has been devoured), I shall refrain from exploring Müller’s role more fully. This means, inevitably, that I have to avoid discussing some of the most interesting aspects of the novel, innovations that made it a more original and interesting and, arguably, more important book than most other novels being published – in or outside the crime genre – at the time.
The question of whether The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor is or is not a crime novel is one that is addressed in Müller’s epilogue. One of numerous writers and critics ‘quoted’ in this section is Francis Iles, author of Malice Aforethought (1931). Iles is namechecked in another interesting crime novel of the period, Philip MacDonald’s X v. Rex (1933): ‘Mr Victor Gollancz denies that Francis Iles is the pseudonymn of Mr Martin Porlock…’ MacDonald’s novel was originally published under the pseudonym Martin Porlock. Francis Iles, meanwhile, was a pseudonym for Anthony Berkeley Cox, and, of all publishers, it was Victor Gollancz who would put out the first edition of The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor in 1937.
WEST INDIA DOCK ROAD
Docklands has undergone perhaps more change than any other district of London. Smith gets McCabe to drive him out to West India Dock Road so they can pay a visit to Estella Lamare’s mother. McCabe, driving, feels in control. Just after turning right into West India Dock Road from Commercial Road, they pass the former German Sailors’ Home. On the spot today, in fact – and indeed since 1901 – is the former British and Foreign Sailors’ Society. In 1983 the building came under the control of Rodinglea Housing Association and a Chinese Welfare Project has been incorporated. Smith and McCabe’s destination is a house in the next block. ‘On the ground floor was an Arabian restaurant which had little dishes with curry and chutney and green tea in the window.’ Sadly all you’ll find today is a Domino’s Pizza.
The visit to Estella’s mother reveals that John Robertson had a relationship with the dead girl that he had kept quiet. The plot thickens. On the drive back, Smith subtly undermines McCabe by settling into the driving seat and taking the wheel of his car.
With Jensen found dead, a bullet hole in his temple and a gun in his hand, the way should be clear for McCabe to pursue Maria Ray, but the star won’t accept his calls. McCabe takes time out, walking down to the river and into chapter nineteen, which contains some of the most curious passages in the novel as well as some of the most beautifully written.
Things are not working out. ‘… there was too much brown fog.’ The game is not being played in the right spirit. ‘You don’t know whether you’d better stick around or beat it.’ Walking by the river, downstream on the north bank, McCabe hears a ‘curious rhythm’ being hummed in the darkness. Descending a flight of steps, he finds seven men, ‘their bums on the cold wet stone and their legs drawn close and their backs against the wall and their heads back over their shoulders against the wall and their caps tilted back in the neck, and singing like that, like cats up towards the sky’. With his curiously loping sentence structure and deliberate repetition, McCabe whips up a rhythm to match that of the Soviet sailors, whose boats are being unloaded across the river at Hay’s Wharf.
McCabe walks on, past sluices and locks, getting a light from a nightwatchman in China Street. There is no China Street: has McCabe strayed from the map, become lost in a phantasmagorical London of sea shanties and swirling fogs? He goes over the plot in his mind, the twists and turns, the dead ends and possible outcomes. ‘Now I had it all clear. Keep away from the two girls and set the men together by the ears. Find out the backgrounds of Bloom, Christensen, Happy. Finally Smith and Robertson: play one off against the other and make them contradict themselves and each other.’ As any blocked author knows, there are few better ways of untying the knots in your plot than going for a long, aimless, meandering walk and turning the whole mess over and over in your head.
There are no Soviet freighters moored in the shadow of Tower Bridge today, just a handful of garish pleasure craft, the odd dredger and the Airfix camouflage of HMS Belfast. The sailors and dockers have gone, the wharves stuffed with posh nosh and fancy shops.
There are many different levels to The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor, different ways in and different ways out. It’s as multifarious as it is ambiguous. It’s a cinema novel that’s not cinematic (despite Müller’s claim that it is ‘a much closer approach to a film story than to a novel’); it plays too subversively with the conventions of literature for that. It’s both a detective story and a deconstruction of the detective story. The London angle, which I have focused on to the exclusion of certain others, is a way in that ties up with McCabe’s fundamental motivation, his feelings for Maria Ray, as illustrated by the following passage, part of a supposed books column in the Times, lifted from the epilogue: ‘In the fever of city life infatuations are apt to grow like mushrooms. The noise, the hurry and the sensation of being one among millions of unknown and therefore exciting people, make for a curious instability in those who live on what may be called the fringe of the artistic world. What they conceive to be love becomes with them an obsession and the whole of experience.’
There would be something to be said for reading The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor in or near the locations it so memorably exploits: on a bench in Mecklenburgh Square, for example, or on a tube travelling beneath King’s Cross. In the Blue Posts pub on the corner on Bennet Street, or the Hogshead in Fetter Lane. Wandering lost around Alma Square and Hamilton Gardens or reclining in the peaceful churchyard of St Anne’s Limehouse, a few yards from West India Dock Road. Perhaps best of all would be a secluded spot by the river, in the shadow of Tower Bridge, with your bum on the cold wet stone and your legs drawn close and your back against the wall. With the right wind on a quiet night you might even hear the ‘good and manly sound’ of McCabe’s seven sea shanty singers.
There appears to be a 2005 edition of The Face on the Cutting Room Floor from blackmask.com. Or various Penguin editions are available secondhand. Nicholas Royle’s latest crime novel is Antwerp (Serpent’s Tail)