What You See in the Dark by Manuel Muñoz is a noir thriller set in 1950s Bakersfield. The fictional story of Mexican-American Teresa Garza’s romance with and murder by Anglo Dan Watson, is set against a re-imagining of the location scouting and filming of the shocking motel scenes in Hitchcock’s Psycho. The story itself is told in the harsh lights and darks of desert life — for whatever reason as I read and saw the story in my mind’s eye, the novel was in black and white, sunlight harsh and brilliant while the nighttime shadows were dark.
The novel has an interesting structure, counterpointing the romance of Dan and Teresa, with the location experiences Janet Leigh (referred to only as The Actress), cast as Hitchcock’s (who is only named as The Director) initial victim. What You See in the Dark is told from multiple points of view by the story’s different characters, switching between second and third person, which has jarring quality, yet also makes it feel richer and longer. The use of second person, naming the reader as “you” made me feel implicated in the story, at times longing to turn away and deny what was a voyeuristic point of view, watching through the windows at the local drive-in or peering at the couple through the windows of the shop:
If you had been across the street, pretending to investigate the local summer roses outside Holliday’s Flower Shop, you could have seen them through the café’s plate glass, the two sitting in a booth by the window, eating lunch. You could have seen them even if you had been inside the shop, peering from behind the window display of native Bakersfield succulents, wide-faced California sunflowers, blue flax in hanging pots.
While this is a great novel by a Chicano author, at first I wasn’t ready to call it a “Chicano novel” in quite the same way as some of the other books I’ve reviewed recently are — it seems more about the conventions of 1950s small town life as contrasted with the Hollywood / Los Angeles of the Actress. Yet that said, the discussion on race and racial tension underpins and haunts the story. Dan’s romance with Teresa defies Bakersfield conventions (and upsets his mother Arlene) while also disrupting her own romantic trajectory with Mexican day laborer. Because it’s told as a noir tale we’re primed for a tragic ending, yet the violence is nonetheless a shock — as a reader I hoped for a romantic end even knowing Teresa’s death was inevitable.
This is a novel of dark moments. The darkest of them, for me, was when Dan rushes home to pack to flee town after Teresa’s death (we’re never explicitly told he murdered her, but there’s literally blood on his hands) and his mother fears he’s about to run off and marry her. Recommend book and author highly.
A fun YouTube novel preview.