In the short story collection Ghosts of You, Cathy Ulrich rips apart familiar mystery tropes of noir fiction. Like a seasoned gumshoe, Ulrich dirties her hands, digs through sensationalism, and ignores the obvious to search for clues. She opens up the spaces between what the readers think they understand and the truth. These aren’t whodunits. Ulrich leads us on the trail of who-was-she?
The first time I read, “The thing about being the murdered girl is you set the plot in motion,” (the first line of each story), was in “Being the Murdered Moll” (Cheap Pop). The description of the lover “who will clutch your bullet-riddled body,” dark hotel rooms, and convenience store robberies, lulled me. I know how this story ends, I thought. Instead, Ulrich used those words like a tired detective’s naked light bulb in a smoky interrogation room. I examined the story under a new light. It wasn’t the story of a lady who got what she deserved, or even a lady who was a pivotal part of the plot. Instead, I read about a lady who never had a chance to control or create her own plot. The Moll silently lived within her boyfriend’s voice and what ‘they say.’
In Ghosts of You, Ulrich honours each of the Murdered Ladies with precise language: “The minister will shake your husband’s hand again before he goes, leave your husband feeling comforted, feeling known.” The idea of ‘feeling known’ sums up the powerlessness of The Murdered Professor. The husband lives a life of being known, not the same life his wife lived.
In “Being the Murdered Wife,” Ulrich describes how little control The Wife had before she died: “Your children will be shown photographs of you, told: This is Mommy. Your children will grow up thinking of mothers as two-dimensional things, will think of you as that girl with one hand holding her hand back, squinting into the camera—that photo you always asked your husband to throw out. That photo you never knew he kept.” Ulrich doesn’t waste words. In a few sentences we understand how the husband controls her memory and the image he wants in a wife. He keeps the picture she didn’t approve of, and their children grow up honouring the same two-dimensional figure. Ulrich describes how pictures, not the truth, surround the children. When wife number three touches the children—“They’ll be surprised at the weight of her arms … will think: Is this what a mother feels like?”—the weightless childhood memory reflects The Wife’s life. I’ve reread this short passage many times, and I keep finding something new to ponder. The small space The Wife existed in. The heaviness of the new wife in the children’s life. Forgetting what a mother feels like. Was she ever alive?
The theme of identification runs through each of the thirty-one stories in the collection. Reading them as a whole, (which I did over two afternoons), is a completely different experience than reading them separately. There is a sameness to the stories; the opening line, the subject matter, and the silent (or practically silent) females. At times The Murdered Ladies blur together, and I wasn’t sure afterwards which one was haunting me. But it doesn’t detract from the power of the narrative. Ulrich directs the stories into a cohesive Greek chorus. We hear the character’s silence illuminating the spaces that Ulrich ripped open:
Murdered homecoming queen, you don’t need a name, the thing you have become is more real a name than the one you ever had before.
Ulrich guides us through dark alleys, honky-tonks, suburban homes, diners, bars, high schools, supper clubs, fast cars, and movie sets to solve the mystery of What/Whose plot is set in motion? She interrogates the housewife, babysitter, muse, homecoming queen, hermit. The powerful and powerless are given equal treatment because they are one. Murder connects them. Ulrich eulogies The Murdered Ladies with truth: “You’ll be a saint. You’ll be a whore. You’ll be the murdered girl, the first any of them have known …” Unlike the words about them in newspapers and Bibles, images in photos, films, and statues. Words that do not describe The Murdered Ladies walking in their world. We hear about them from family, clergy, friends, enemies, fans, bosses, lovers, colleagues. A competing chorus of wannabes searching for a connection to a murdered lady. They take over personas, create images, forget jealousies not to honour The Murdered Ladies. They act because they need the light emanating from the notoriety of the murder. It gives their life meaning.
The physical act of murder is a red herring, the actual crime was committed while The Murdered Ladies lived. Ulrich dedicates Ghosts of You to “all the lost women.” May we find them while they are still alive.
Ghosts of You, by Cathy Ulrich. Okay Donkey, October 2019. $15.00, preorder.
Noreen Hernandez is a teacher’s aide and writer with deep life long ties to Chicago. She is a fairly recent graduate of Northeastern Illinois University English and Creative Writing Dept.