Book: “The Sun Down Motel” by Simone St. James
Publishing Info: Berkley, February 2020
Where Did I Get This Book: I received an eARC from the publisher via NetGalley
Book Description: The secrets lurking in a rundown roadside motel ensnare a young woman, just as they did her aunt thirty-five years before, in this new atmospheric suspense novel from the national bestselling and award-winning author of The Broken Girls.
Upstate NY, 1982. Every small town like Fell, New York, has a place like the Sun Down Motel. Some customers are from out of town, passing through on their way to someplace better. Some are locals, trying to hide their secrets. Viv Delaney works as the night clerk to pay for her move to New York City. But something isn’t right at the Sun Down, and before long she’s determined to uncover all of the secrets hidden…
Review: Thanks to Berkley and NetGalley for providing me with an eARC of this book!
I have memories of spending childhood road trips, be it out to Lake Superior or just visiting family down in Iowa, staying in motels. Eventually my mother had it and we were upgraded to hotels, but there was always something kinda fun about the rooms leading out to the parking lot, at least in my mind. It’s been a long while since having that kind of experience, but I thought about it a lot as I read “The Sun Down Motel” by Simone St. James. I greatly enjoyed her book “The Broken Girls”, and when this ended up in my inbox I was happy to see that she had a new book. And not just any old new book, but a new book involving a missing woman, a true crime obsessed amateur sleuth, AND a haunted motel!
Our two stories/mysteries take place in two different timelines and POVs. The first is that of Viv, who left home in 1982 in hopes of going to New York City, but finds herself in Fell, a strange small town in upstate New York that has a lot of weird and violent baggage. Stranded and broke, she decides to take a job as the night clerk at the Sun Down Motel, a run down motel that’s seedy at best. She disappears without a trace. Then in 2017, her niece Carly, wanting to figure out what happened to her aunt, arrives in Fell, and takes the same job Viv had. Viv’s perspective is in the third person, and Carly’s is in the first, and both POV styles worked well for their parts of the story, and worked together to weave a complex and rich set of mysteries. The first mystery is what happened to Viv, and the second is the question of why the Sun Down Motel is so damn haunted, and I was fully invested in both. St. James was masterful at building upon both mysteries from each others foundations, and I was kept guessing for pretty much all of the book.
And then there are the haunting and ghost elements of this story. These too were incredibly well done and right up my alley. From strange noises, to the feeling of a presence near you even if you can’t see anyone, to lights going out one by one and doors opening on their own, St. James has taken a number of the best tropes from the haunted house genre and applied them effortlessly to a run down motel. The history of The Sun Down has the tragedy and scandal that is comparable to The Overlook in “The Shining”, and like King St. James has created a whole character for a place made of brick, mortar, and ectoplasm. The various ghosts range from the tragic to the intimidating, and all of them had sufficiently creepy moments. Both Viv and Carly have their run ins, and the first one we see was genuinely heart pounding and knocked my socks off. St. James makes it clear that she has not come to play, nor has she come to be ambiguous. There are ghosts at the Sun Down, and one of them is especially PISSED OFF.
But the thing that struck the most resonant chord with me as a reader was the undercurrent of the toxicities of misogyny within our culture, both in the 1980s and in modern times. Girls go missing or are murdered in Fell, and while it causes sensation and gossip, the women are completely forgotten soon thereafter, or objectified in the moment. A mother goes missing and ends up murdered, and the town mourns and turns her into a martyr. A girl with a bad reputation is murdered, and there are underpinnings of victim blaming. A warning is sent out about a strange man who is seemingly fixated and following a girl, and no one cares enough to investigate further. And a ghost who was the victim of misogynistic rage has a wrath and fury that was never afforded to her in life, and has turned her into an unsolved and salacious mystery in death. St. James both makes true crime aficionados plucky and useful in their quest for the truth, but also points out that their interest and arguably ‘hobby’ is based in actual people’s pain, and can cause damage in and of itself. I really, really liked how these themes were sprinkled throughout the story.
I highly recommend “The Sun Down Motel” for fans of thrillers and horror alike! And if you can, read it in a roadside motel, and don’t pay too much attention to the strange sounds you may hear outside. It’s probably nothing.
Rating 9: Eerie and suspenseful, and simmering with justifiable anger, “The Sun Down Motel” is a wonderful mystery with fantastic characters.
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