What’s Hitchcock’s Psycho got to do with a murder in a small California city? Not much, but the friction between them drives this refreshingly innovative first novel.
Muñoz returns to the Valley, the setting of his fine story collection The Faith Healer of Olive Avenue (2007): Bakersfield, 1959. Dan Watson is the handsomest guy in town. His mother Arlene is a waitress and motel owner. Dan is seen around with a Mexican store clerk. With his encouragement, she sings under a spotlight at a cantina. Then, shockingly, it’s all over. Teresa (we learn her name from the cemetery marker) is found battered to death outside her apartment, and Dan is a fugitive from justice. Cut to the Actress (an unnamed Janet Leigh) in Bakersfield for some exterior shots. She’s thinking about her character, a love-struck secretary who’s stolen money to facilitate her affair. Can she retain audience sympathy? It’s a strait-laced era, and Muñoz captures it brilliantly, as he progresses to the notorious shower scene while constantly circling back to the Bakersfield murder. What’s striking is the pinpoint clarity of the Actress’s death (the silhouette behind the shower curtain; the knife; the scream) compared to the details of Teresa’s murder, a blurry conjecture. While Hollywood fabricates stories every day, gossipy Bakersfield is no slouch either: If you don’t know the story, make it up. Muñoz follows behind to set the record straight. He leaves Tom as a silhouette. Teresa we get to know better; she dismisses a humble Mexican suitor, dazzled by Tom and her first glimpse of show business. However, it is Arlene who takes center stage. The climax comes when she surprises Tom making his post-murder getaway. What does it mean to be the mother of a killer? Drawing on his compassion for the beaten down, the author provides an unbearably poignant answer.
Muñoz has upended the conventional crime novel, lauding a cinematic master while downplaying his own crime scene and concentrating on a secondary victim. Nice work.