Under the Radar: What You See in the Dark

Certain books hit the PR jackpot. They’re featured in the NY Times Book Review, their authors are interviewed on the Daily Show, they’re blogged about incessantly and all your friends talk about them. Others make their way quietly to the library shelves, praise coming only from book review journals not widely read by the general public. They’re just as good, just as worthy of mention, but simply not promoted heavily and consequently are easily missed. Under the Radar will be an occasional series highlighting these hidden gems, because we don’t want you to miss anything good.

One such book is What You See in the Dark, the debut novel from Manuel Muñoz, released early in 2011. The novel is set in Bakersfield, California in the late 1950s. A famous actress and her director – referred to only as the Actress and the Director – come to town to find the perfect motel for their movie. There is a motel in this movie, and there is a shower scene. We know what the movie is and who the Actress and Director are, though it’s never said outright. Meanwhile, a popular young man in town named Dan Watson has begun a relationship with Teresa, a Mexican clerk in a shoe store, and their relationship plays out in a way that rivals anything on the silver screen.

This quiet, atmospheric novel sneaks up on you. I initially found it mediocre (the first and last chapters are told in a confusing second-person narrative), but as I kept reading I became increasingly drawn into the story. The details about the making of the movie were fascinating, and it’s clear that the author has watched the making of Psycho (included on the DVD.) I think my favorite character was Dan Watson’s mother Arlene, a waitress and motel owner whose business will be adversely affected when the highway is finished, diverting traffic in the other direction…just like the Bates Motel.

Moody and noir, the novel’s style echoes the Hitchcock film that serves as its backdrop. The library owns a copy of What You See in the Dark, but be sure to grab a copy of Psycho to go with it – this novel will make you want to revisit the film.

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