Written by Manuel Munoz — What You See in the Dark contrasts two murders. One is the on-screen killing of Marion Crane, as played by Janet Leigh in Alfred Hitchcock’s 1960 film, Psycho. The other is that of Teresa Garza, a rather plain young lady of Mexican extraction who lived in Bakersfield, California.
Linking the two deaths is the fictional story that Munoz weaves about how Janet Leigh and Alfred Hitchcock pass through Bakersfield, scouting out motels and doing test photography in the pre-production stage of the film. Arriving before her director, the actress and her driver stop for lunch in the town’s greasy spoon cafe, which is run by Arlene Watson. She happens to be the mother of Bakersfield heartthrob Dan Watson who, in turn, is the boyfriend of tragic Teresa.
Arlene is tense and peculiar. She lives with the shame that her husband, Dan’s father, left her years ago. And later she’ll live with the shame of what her son does to Teresa. However she carries on with British-like stoicism, suppressing her feelings, denying herself a second chance at love, and never admitting her loneliness to anyone but herself – if that.
Janet Leigh runs into Arlene again, this time with Alfred Hitchcock, when they pull into the motel Arlene and Dan run. The director is so inspired by the place that he bases the Bates Motel in his film on Arlene’s place, but she won’t find out until later on when the movie actually comes out. Farm town Arlene doesn’t think much of these Hollywood types with their big city morality, and sees them off during an awkward encounter in the motel car park.
Teresa leads a lonely life too. She was left on her own in California by her mother, who went back to Texas to be with Teresa’s estranged father. She works in the local shoe store – hired only because the owner needs someone who can speak Spanish serving his growing Mexican clientele. And she works alongside Candy, who would very much like to sleep with Dan Watson. Though Candy knows she’ll marry a farmer’s son, and become a farmer’s wife, she’s jealous as hell of Teresa and Dan and their freedom. However, Teresa has a secret. Not only is Dan Watson interested in her, but so is Cheno, a Mexican farm labourer who has been wooing her for many months.
Munoz’s story is cleverly told from the perspectives of Janet Leigh, Arlene Watson, Teresa Garza, Candy and Alfred Hitchcock. Writing in this way, the author studies each of his characters intently. It’s pure noir, an existential dissection of Bakersfield in the 1960s, along with that famous shower scene in Psycho. Maudlin and fatalistic, there’s no mystery here, little action, and nothing hardboiled either. Despite this, the book builds a certain level of tension as you hope that somewhere along the line one of the characters will receive an ounce of happiness.
The author is a talented and observant writer who seems to have studied Psycho a great deal, as well as mid-20th century small town California. Most crime fiction lovers will certainly want more in the way of intrigue, as well as a solution to the crime committed. But if you’re on the lookout for something a little more literary, that really generates atmosphere and gets under the skin of very well drawn characters, then give What You See in the Dark a Try. It won’t disappoint.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars