At the start of this quiet yet confident debut novel by Manuel Muñoz, there is much for the people of the lonely city of Bakersfield to be gossiping about. The famous actress Janet Leigh and director Alfred Hitchcock have just arrived to shoot scenes for Psycho. But Bakersfield doesn’t need to wait for that film to be released, as a much more real horror presents itself right in town—a young Mexican woman, Teresa, is found murdered, and her boyfriend, Dan Watson, has conveniently disappeared.
In different hands, a story like this would likely turn into a no-holds-barred murder mystery. Instead Muñoz wisely focuses his attention on the private dilemmas of three vastly different women. He gives us the shy and independent Teresa, who longs for love and dreams of becoming a famous singer, and Janet Leigh, torn between acting and motherhood, and terribly fearful about her own abilities and about appearing all but naked in front of the camera. And then there is Arlene Watson, Dan’s mother—a hardened woman who knows the meaning of abandonment. It is Arlene who really holds the narrative together. Leigh and Teresa never cross paths, but Arlene has encounters with both women. She is there after the gossip dies down about Leigh, and she is there after Teresa’s death, left to face the rumors of her son’s awful crime.
What You See in the Dark is at its best when it goes where film cannot go—into the interior places of thought. Yes, there is violence. But Muñoz does not simply portray the horror of it that makes us scream; rather, he allows us to see the repercussions of violence—the rumors and the insinuations and the lies. This is a gentle story, full of loss and regret.