BY LAURIE ROCKENBECK
Caitlin Mullen’s debut novel Please See Us takes genre norms, chews them up, and spits them out into a gripping literary thriller. This ambitious work delves into a myriad of societal issues—trafficking, bullying, motherhood, drug abuse, mental health, inadequate foster systems, and misogyny.
In the prologue, we are introduced to two nameless women lying together as described by a distant omniscient narrator. If this were a movie, it would begin with a long shot of an airplane flying an advertising banner low over a decrepit Atlantic City. The camera would leave the plane as it swoops around to the back of a grungy pay-by-the-hour hotel and focus on the two women who are “laid out like tallies in the stretch of marsh just behind the Sunset Motel.” A woman’s voice over—warm, sultry, tired—would say:
The women can see everything with perfect clarity now, the man’s entire design available to them as though they had thought of it themselves: by the end of eight weeks’ time there will be five more women.
Mullen sets the clock ticking and then introduces us to two of the main protagonists in the story. Clara is a teenage high-school drop-out who lives with her aunt and works as a tarot card reader and psychic. She sometimes “sees” things but can’t control what or when she sees them. These disturbing visions are often brief and indistinct, and Clara must interpret their meaning best she can. Like the reader, there are times when Clara questions their authenticity along with her sanity. These visions may be problematic for readers who dislike a touch of magical realism in their stories. Mullen makes a weak case for Clara’s visions being part of a mental illness, but without them being “real” the story falls apart and would rely on coincidence.
Lily is an art dealer returning home to Atlantic City after a public humiliation in the New York art world. She takes a low-stress job at a spa inside a casino while she figures out what she is going to do next. When Lily and Clara meet, their lives are inextricably entwined, and we keep turning pages late into the night for their inevitable clash with the killer.
Mullen also gives us Luis, a deaf and mute man whose presence fills in the gaps traditionally given to readers by going into the head of the killer and provides the momentum and urgency needed in a thriller. His inability to communicate beyond the most basic concepts is necessary for the plot, but his interactions with bullies, co-workers, and the police highlight an inept educational and foster system.
Mullen focuses on female victims with an intense magnifying glass. Unlike many current thrillers, the women in this story are given the spotlight, and it’s not comfortable. The gritty reality of being a woman is laid bare in recognizable terms.
She thinks for a moment about all of the rules you learn first as a girl: Don’t talk to strangers. Don’t go anywhere with someone you don’t know. Keep an eye on your drinks. Don’t dress like you’re asking for it. Don’t get too drunk. But she is so tired of rules. When she found out she was having a daughter, she worried that she would have to instill in her that same vigilance, and what was that vigilance but a form of fear? Screw it, she thinks, and swallows half of the glass in a single gulp. She needs this, for the drink to do its loosening work. But still she can’t help it. She doubles over, sobs until she gags. He stands over her––she watches his shadow on the floor.
While the female characters are rich and fully developed, an almost non-existent villain makes the story all the more terrifying. The killer’s very lack of substance makes this book particularly unnerving and sets it apart from a rash of thrillers featuring nearly sympathetic serial killers. Rather than delving into the psyche of the killer and how his wounded past created his sick need to kill, we get to know his victims in far greater detail, mostly after their deaths. The effect is similar to not removing the mask on a bogeyman—we are left to imagine him on our own. This shadowy figure could be anyone we know.
Nearly a third of the chapters are told from the dead Janes’ points of view. Hearing from ghosts isn’t an entirely new concept, but Mullen takes the device into new territory by employing an ever-diminishing narrative distance with each woman we meet. The prologue is in a very distant omniscient voice. Janes 3, 4, and 5 are represented in a somewhat distant third person point of view. By the time we meet Jane 6, we know her, and her murder is told in a very immediate first person.
Most importantly, Please See Us is a plea from all the real-world Janes—women who are killed and left to be forgotten, lost, and degraded by the fact no one sees them.
But he took their stories and changed the shape of them. Janes 1 and 2 share their greatest regret: that once they are found here, in the marsh, this will be the only story anyone will ever tell about them.
Laurie Rockenbeck was raised a Navy brat and moved around a lot as a kid. She lives near Seattle with her family, two cats, and a dwindling number of chickens. She graduated with a degree in journalism and quickly learned that writing fiction was a lot more fun. With a grandmother who started every story with: this is a true lie…, there is no doubt that story-telling and exaggeration are part of her genetic make-up. Rockenbeck has her private investigation license but prefers writing about made up cases over investigating real ones. Her mystery series features Seattle Police Department’s only trans male homicide detective and a pro dominatrix turned PI. She is pursuing her MFA in Fiction at UC Riverside’s Palm Desert Campus. Visit Laurie at LaurieRockenbeck.com.