The once vibrant and bustling New Jersey hot spot is now tawdry and in a sharp decline. The once thriving casinos and hotels are starved for business – at least the ones that are left. The economy is in free fall and violent crime is on the rise. The hustlers, grifters, and sex workers are struggling to survive.Young women in New Jersey’s declining tourist mecca are going missing.
We meet two women struggling to survive under challenging conditions.
Lily, a well educated former art scout in New York, has returned to the city of her birth to recuperate after a bitter break up. She moves in with her widowed mother to start over completely. The break up with her fiance has left her without money or possessions, and has left her feeling used and betrayed. She procures a position in one of the remaining casino’s spas.
The other, Ava, is a sixteen year old girl who lives with her aunt Des, a woman to whom life has been less than kind. Des uses Ava’s youth to further her own agenda. She teaches her to steal when she is only seven, and when she is a teenager pimps her out to pay the bills. By day, Ava works under the name Clara Voyant. She is a psychic plying her trade on the boardwalk. She reads tarot cards and learns things about people that she’d rather not know.
Luis is a deaf mute man who works at the Casino as a janitor. His demeanor is such that he is prey to bullies. Rendered invisible by society Luis has come to hate the police who have ignored his pleas for help on more than one occasion.
Ava/Clara begins to have some disturbing visions. She suspects her visions are related to the missing girls. When the uncle of one of the girls comes to Clara, she is even more certain. She feels flies crawling over her….
Meanwhile… more than one Jane Doe lie dead in a marshy field out behind the seedy and downtrodden Sunset Motel. As their bodies deteriorate, flies crawl over their corpses. The women seem to cry…. “Please See Us“.
When circumstances conspire for Clara and Lily to meet, the two young women form a hesitant bond. Lily realizes that Clara’s visions are genuine and feels protective toward her. They band together to try to learn the fate of the missing women.
Dark subject matter and dire situations ensured that this is not a ‘feel good’ novel. Like the characters within the pages, an overwhelming impression of hopelessness prevails.
Both young women have stories that make you root for them, especially Ava. She is so young and has never had a nurturing or loving family.
We hear the final ‘thoughts‘ of the dead Jane Does… How tragic, will their killer be found?
This is definitely not a tourism advertisement for Atlantic City. It depicts the place as having suffered from extreme economic downturn. The tawdry neon lights masking the shabby and sleazy under-layer is brilliantly described. As is the marsh where the girls are lying… the reader can almost smell the mud and decay.
This is a dark and oftentimes disturbing debut crime novel. The writing was polished and the plot well developed. So much so that you realize this is a talented writer to watch.
Anyone who likes their crime novels to be dark and realistic with genuine characters then this is the debut for you.
This review was written voluntarily and my rating was in no way influenced by the fact that I received a complimentary digital copy of this novel from Gallery Books/Simon & Schuster via NetGalley – Published March 1, 2020.
Caitlin Mullen earned a BA in English and Creative Writing from Colgate University, an MA in English from NYU, and an MFA in fiction from Stony Brook University. She has been the recipient of fellowships and residencies from the Saltonstall Foundation and the Vermont Studio Center.
She grew up in upstate New York and the Jersey Shore and currently lives in Brooklyn.
Please See Us is her debut novel.
Follow Caitlin Mullen on Twitter: @CaitEMullen