Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Detective as "Zombie of the Interrogative Mood" in Cameron McCabe's the Face on the Cutting-Room Floor

Academic journal article Mosaic (Winnipeg)

The Detective as "Zombie of the Interrogative Mood" in Cameron McCabe's the Face on the Cutting-Room Floor

Article excerpt

While Cameron McCabe's extraordinary detective novel The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor interrogates its own generic mystery elements, Padgett Powell's The Interrogative Mood asks if its own constant questions are "independent [...] zombies of the interrogative mood" (113). This essay examines how reading as mutual interrogation brings text, detective, and reader in McCabe's novel (back) to life.

Cameron McCabe's bizarre and utterly compelling 1937 mystery novel The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor (1) has received little concerted critical attention, despite Julian Symons's hyperbolic assertion that it is "the detective story to end detective stories" (259). Though Symons appears to innocently espouse the novel's merits, he also betrays the problems faced by its readers, namely that the story both exemplifies and explodes the detective fiction genre. Symons's further claim that "the heart of the book is in the epilogue" (260) compounds the confusion: how can the narrative's core be outside its core? The text's formal experimentations mean the reader is not only asked to piece together the puzzle elements of the plot, but also how and why they are presented this way. The book is divided into unorthodox sections titled (or summarized here for convenience) as follows: Warning; Exegesis; Main Story; Epilogue; Envoi; Apologies; and, finally, a List of Quotations. These sections add to both The Face's mystique and its instability because rather than simply request that the reader participate in a problem's solution by questioning what is happening, the novel in turn questions the reader--about what makes it intelligibly a work of detective fiction yet outside the genre's boundaries, how the law works when boundaries seem so blurred, and what ethical and practical repercussions this has for the supposedly passive role of the reader. This mutual interrogation mushrooms into multiple lines of investigation, bringing into question traditional notions of justice, literariness, death, and exactly who the detective is that navigates the relationships between all these notions. In a similar spirit, the present essay seeks to question these questions in order to elucidate the dialogical interrogatory responsibilities of critic and writer, reader and detective, living person and inanimate text. The ultimate aim is to propose an interrogative theory of reading based on a certain equivalence between all these appellations, what might be thought of as an inability to question anyone or anything without being questioned back.

Narrated by McCabe and constituting the bulk of the text, the Main Story of The Face on the Cutting-Room Floor could on its own be regarded as an eccentric yet recognizable piece of detective fiction. However, it is insulated from simple comprehensibility by the other sections--as Symons points out, particularly by the long and dazzling Epilogue, ostensibly not written by McCabe (who, to complicate matters, dies at the end of the Main Story) but by ABC Muller, journalist, literary critic, and minor character from the Main Story. On top of this, "the text's own history of creation and reception involves unravelling the enigma of its author" (Brunnhuber 52). Cameron McCabe is merely a pseudonym--the "real" author is Ernest Borneman, a German exiled in Britain during the novel's composition in the 1930s, a fact only discovered by critics decades after the novel's first publication. By this time, Borneman was a respected psychologist and academic living in Austria, but he later killed himself over a love affair gone wrong, uncannily like his double alter-ego (McCabe as author and character) purportedly does in the novel, almost as if The Face were a clairvoyant, literary insight into Borneman's own future. Though early reaction to the book was positive and later instances of praise such as Symons's do exist, claims that "the novel has been incorporated into the canon of British mystery fiction" (Brunnhuber 52) seem wide of the mark considering that by "April 1974, [. …

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