October 1999

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Trick of Light:
A Seductive Thriller That Asks Us to Question Ourselves and Our World

by Daphne Frostchild

Trick of Light
David Hunt
405 pp.

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The plot of Trick of Light, William Bayer's second novel written under the pseudonym David Hunt, has a few obvious antecedents in the film world. First, the protagonist's mentor and former teacher (Maddy Yamada, a female photographer) is killed in a mysterious hit-and-run accident, and the protagonist (Kay Farrow) is moved to begin her own amateur investigation after noticing that

1) the neighbors seem to be withholding information out of fear and

2) the cops don't seem too concerned with the case.

The film antecedent, of course, is Carol Reed's The Third Man: Joseph Cotten's best friend (played by Orson Welles) is killed in a hit-and-run accident, the neighbors seem scared to tell him what they saw, and the official investigator (the wonderful Trevor Howard) seems willing to let the case go unsolved.

Then Kay inherits her mentor's cameras, and she discovers that one of the cameras is still loaded with film and has been used recently (despite the mentor's claims to have retired from photography). She takes the film out, and after spending hours in the developing room, murky patterns and faintly disturbing images begin to appear. Here, of course, many readers will immediately think of Antonioni's Blow-Up, with its photographer-protagonist working feverishly over a photograph that seems to show a murder taking place.

The film antecedents shouldn't surprise Bayer's long-time fans; he has written two books on film in addition to directing several documentary films and the feature film, Mississippi Summer. But Trick of Light is not a self-conscious, postmodern effort full of tongue-in-cheek allusions, and the plot soon expands without making obvious references to either The Third Man or Blow-Up (although Hunt makes a passing a reference to Francis Ford Coppola's The Conversation, Blow-Up's kissing cousin).


After a little legwork, Kay finds the room her mentor used for her surreptitious photography (it's in the run-down neighborhood where she died), and she stares at the dark, curtained window her mentor had photographed. But the purpose of the murky photographs is still unclear: "How,"

David Hunt
Photo by Maurine Sutter

Kay asks herself, "can I account for Maddy's meaningless shots, which look more like failed surveillance photos than the work of an important artist / photographer?"

Then Kay asks herself the same questions that Maddy used to ask her students: "What's there? What's the feeling? What was she trying to convey?" Kay studies the photos from a distance, and suddenly, "the answer comes to me with striking clarity. Menace, depravity, even evil--that's what's in her pictures, that's what they're all about."

Kay returns to her mentor's hideaway room and finds a notebook in a sweater pocket. Many of the notes seem to have been written in the dark, and most of them don't make sense. But one grabs Kay's attention: "THE GUN / FIND THE GUN / WHERE'S THE GUN?" Tantalizing, but still no clear explanation. Then, after days of useless watching (another film antecedent: Jimmy Stewart as the voyeuristic photographer in Rear Window), a light comes on in the suspect room, and Kay finds herself eavesdropping on what appears to be a sex party. Except the people are doing some strange things with what looks like...a gun, if it's not a trick of light.


Hunt is a strong, confident writer, and he lets Trick of Light advance at a slow, seductive pace that subtly draws the reader into its spell (in film terms, think here of the hypnotic camerawork in Hitchcock's Vertigo--like Trick of Light, set in San Francisco). And--perhaps best of all--his teasing, seductive pace matches up beautifully to one of his central themes: what, we are ultimately asked, is it that we see, exactly? And how do we ever know that our perceptions match up to the world that (in most cases, at least) generates our perceptions? The everyday world seems so steady, so obvious, but once you begin questioning its veracity--or your own capacity to catch its elusive truths--it becomes a shady, uncertain place, seductive in its mysteries yet dangerous for the very fact that it's unknowable.

While Trick of Light is as addictive a page-turner as any other thriller on the market today, somewhere along the way it quietly becomes something more: a serious, subtly complicated novel that offers its audience a disturbingly unsettling take on what the world around us may really be like. (Or, for that matter, who the people we love really are.) It's a neat trick, really, to draw an audience into a circus tent with the promise of exotic thrills and send them back out with a disturbing realization that they were themselves the exotica on display. That he's able to do it so subtly is a mark of Hunt's talents as a writer.

For readers looking for an intelligent thriller that doesn't rush madly from one explosion to the next, this novel is close to perfect.


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Contents and Graphic Design Copyright 1999
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