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Please See Us


Please See Us

From debut author Caitlin Mullen comes PLEASE SEE US, a literary thriller written in the vein of greats such as Laura Lippman and Chloe Benjamin and set in the ripe-for-drama beachside town of Atlantic City, New Jersey.

For readers unfamiliar with Atlantic City’s storied and sordid past, allow me to offer a brief history lesson. Founded in 1854 between an interesting combination of marshlands and islands, Atlantic City was initially eyed by developers as a potential resort town. A successful partnership with railway investors made it an easy weekend and vacation destination, prompting tremendous growth in the early 1900s, when a permanent boardwalk was erected and elegant, architecturally stimulating hotels were constructed. Casinos and nightclubs followed, and the city saw a boom during the Prohibition era, when alcohol, limited nearly everywhere else, continued to flow in the backrooms of casinos. But paired with this sense of hedonism came organized crime, prostitution and drugs. By the end of the 20th century, Atlantic City was in the middle of an economic decline marked by an upswing in the drug use of its citizens, the closing of numerous fancy hotels and a general sense of hopelessness.

Set in the present day, PLEASE SEE US opens on the gruesome scene of two murdered women lying in the marshlands. Acting as a sort of Greek chorus, these Jane Does watch as the lights of Atlantic City flicker and women just like them strap on their high heels, wiggle into their skin-tight dresses and head out into the night to make a living the only way they can. Armed with the vivid clarity that comes with death, the Janes watch as a single man moves through the city, striking down its sex workers with the aim of cutting it down. Though we do not know their identities yet, they are immediately familiar --- desperate, broken and undone. Confronting us with the darkest part of the city, Mullen beckons readers not only to see the women she writes about, but to really look at them and their stories.

"Thrillers have seen a rise in popularity in recent years, but PLEASE SEE US is not like anything I have read before. Mullen’s prose is so beautifully rendered and her pace so careful that you almost forget there is a mystery at the book’s core..."

Moving closer into the city, we meet Clara (full name: Clara Voyant, a delightfully ridiculous pun), an underage clairvoyant who lives with Des, her deadbeat mother’s closest friend. Gorgeous and haunted, Des and Clara read fortunes on the boardwalk, commit petty thefts and struggle to get by in a town that has largely forgotten them. Des supplements their income by dancing and providing special treatments to men after hours. Though Des’ gift for reading the cards and telling fortunes is based more on street smarts, Clara is the real deal. Her visions are not controllable, but they are able to show her a person’s deepest hurts and desires, helping her to guide her customers toward the right paths, even as she hurdles down the wrong one. But when Clara reads the fortune of a distraught man looking for his niece, she has a disturbing vision that feels a little too real. For days, she feels flies crawling on her when there is nothing there and sees visions of violence and fear, prompting her to wonder if she is seeing the last moments of the man’s niece’s life.

Across the city we meet Lily, a former New York City gallery girl whose life was recently destroyed by her privileged ex-boyfriend in the name of art. Tail between her legs, Lily returns to the forlorn, forgotten city she swore never to visit again. Though she is adamant that she will return to New York by the end of the summer, Lily needs a job to make that dream a reality, so she finds herself working at a spa in one of the city’s failing resorts. Putting her artist’s eye to good use, she is struck by the juxtaposition of self-care and luxury and the reality of the streetwalkers who are not allowed past the spa’s glass doors.

This dichotomy is most strikingly realized when Lily meets Clara. Hypnotized by the girl’s age and ability to seduce everyone around her, and beleaguered by memories of what she knows happens to girls like Clara in Atlantic City, Lily strikes up a careful friendship with the young clairvoyant. Touched by Lily’s attention, Clara starts to believe in her visions and their connections to the missing girl whose face is plastered all over town. When more girls go missing, Lily and Clara band together to figure out who is victimizing Atlantic City’s women.

PLEASE SEE US is an intense slowburn of a psychological thriller. Mullen’s version of suspense comes not from bloody handprints or red herrings, but from the perceptive and poignant insights into the lives of young women --- and not just the ones who find themselves walking the streets at night in Atlantic City. Mullen writes of violence, womanhood and power in ways that will disturb her readers, but she is notably never gratuitous or voyeuristic in her descriptions of sex and violence, rage and power. Instead, she writes with an unflinching eye, shining a light on the women forgotten by news stories and activists and begging her readers to see the reality of life for all women, especially those who have fallen victim to abusive men, drug abuse, poverty or mental illness.

Focusing not on their mistakes or flaws, Mullen highlights the unfairness of the myriad expectations placed on women and how the tension can often lead them to fall. She writes in one particularly poignant passage, “The world was always conspiring to make young women vulnerable while labeling it as ‘fun.’ Made it seem like we were in control, like we were making all the choices, and then it was our fault when things went wrong. Us and our short skirts, our makeup, our taste for rum, for liking the things we were told to like, wanting what we were taught to want.” Proving her point, no one in the city but Clara or Lily cares or notices when two, then three, then four women disappear. These tattooed, voluptuous and scarred ladies cannot have their haunted, sunken eyes gazing at viewers from the news channels or “missing” posters, and so the city ignores them.

Rounding out Clara and Lily’s narratives is the perspective of Luis, a deaf and mute man who sees far more than anyone realizes, and whose story gives readers an even greater --- and, if we’re being honest, more heartbreaking --- view of the crumbling seaside town and its lost citizens. Combined with the viewpoints of Clara and Lily, Luis’ side gives us a complete 360-degree view of Atlantic City, and the juxtaposition of glamour and degradation is enough to horrify and depress any reader. And yet, somehow, Mullen uses her exquisite prose and thought-provoking insights to push readers forward. This was a book I wanted to put down so many times --- not because it was bad, but because it was too vivid, too painful, too real --- but I could not do it once. Alluding to her book’s title, Mullen begs her readers to see these girls. As impossible as it seems, she is able to explore every Jane Doe’s background, every fatal flaw and every slide into danger, never once losing her audience in the horrors of it all.

Thrillers have seen a rise in popularity in recent years, but PLEASE SEE US is not like anything I have read before. Mullen’s prose is so beautifully rendered and her pace so careful that you almost forget there is a mystery at the book’s core. The girls’ lives are too gripping to focus on the killer, and Mullen proposes too many painful questions to care about the “whodunit.” But this is the glory of her work --- there is no spotlight on violent or rage-fueled men, but rather on the women who suffer at their hands. I will say that the ending shocked me in the most stunning way; although they are not similar, I can only compare it to the complete sense of horror I felt when reading books like THE SILENT PATIENT and THE WIFE BETWEEN US.

Mullen is a bright new talent, and I was constantly in awe of the fact that this is her debut; she is so skilled and so cadenced, with every word chosen with the care of a poet. I foresee a long career for her, and I cannot wait to find out where she turns her literary eye next.

Reviewed by Rebecca Munro on March 6, 2020

Please See Us
by Caitlin Mullen