Completely addictive, riveting, and engaging, The Sun Down Motel is the latest supernatural thriller from Simone St. James. A dual timeline tale of two women thirty-five years apart looking for answers to a series of disappearances, it contains the eerie, haunted tone I expect from this author’s work together with an excellent, engrossing mystery which had me finishing the story in a single sitting.
In 1982, a fight with her mother has young Viviane – Viv - Delaney fleeing her small Illinois hometown for New York City. A hitchhiking experience gone wrong lands her in quiet Fell, NY at the Sun Down Motel, a rather shabby roadside inn. The owner is in the office, frustrated that an employee has quit and she will have to work all night after having been there all day. She makes a deal with Viv: Viv can stay for free, if she agrees to take a nap for the next few hours and then cover the graveyard shift. It’s a good bargain for the fiscally challenged girl and she accepts. She finds herself staying in Fell and working at the Sun Down for more than just one night, developing a deep fascination with the history of the place and the creepy events that take place when daylight fades and the Sun Down spooks come out to play. She is especially interested in the years old murder of a young woman whose body was found at the motel’s construction site when it was first being built.
In 2017 Carly Kirk sets out from her Illinois hometown determined to find some answers regarding her Aunt Viv who vanished while working the night shift at a seedy upstate New York motel. It’s as if Fell has been waiting for her. She quickly makes a friend of Heather, a fellow murderino, who wants to help her find out what happened to her aunt and luck results in Carly filling the vacant position of the graveyard shift at the Sun Down, the same job Viv held before her disappearance. Carly begins to retrace Viv’s last days, slowly realizing that it isn’t just the mystery of one young woman she is investigating, but many. It seems Fell had a big problem in the 80s, a killer who had moved carefully, silently among them murdering girls at will. Is he why Viv vanished? Or do the strange occurrences at the spooky hostelry hide something else, something ageless, angry and deadly which is still actively looking for victims?
There is no gradual buildup of suspense with this story. The very first line of the novel is “The night it all ended, Vivian was alone.” and the tension just ratchets up from there as we become increasingly obsessed with what ended and what happened to the solo Vivian. The Sun Down, the titular center of our tale, is a large part of what creates the narrative’s aura of apprehension. It abounds with inexplicable scents, sounds and spectral apparitions from the moment we first enter. But it’s not just the building. The whole town seems to be under a baffling sense of menace, as if the community is simply waiting for - and willing to accept - the next weird, incomprehensible event to occur. This dire atmosphere serves as a deliciously ominous backdrop to our rather sinister tale.
The heroines serve as both a calming antidote to the gloomy ambience and as a catalyst for the final, explosive events. Obviously, their interest in the deaths/disappearances of young women are the spark that drives our story, but they are delightful, funny, quirky young people who serve as a reminder that good can conquer evil. Carly and her friends, especially, add light to this otherwise dark tale. Heather, like Carly, is a woman with an interest in true crime. Unlike Carly, she has no personal connection to it, just a deep fascination with solving real life puzzles. Her idiosyncrasies are endearing and her quiet, thoughtful nature offsets some of the frantic pace of the plot. Carly is an utter joy - humorous but intense, and intelligent. Early in the story she meets the gorgeous but emotionally damaged Nick, who has his own tragic tie to Fell and his own peculiar penchant for the Sun Down. Their romance adds a sweet note to what could easily have been a horrifying, bitter story. All three of them bring unique skills to the investigation and become deeply involved in seeing the mystery through to its end.
Viv’s portion of the novel is understandably darker. One of the first things she tells us is that it’s “always girls who ended up stripped and dead like roadkill. It didn’t matter how afraid or how careful you were - it could always be you.” Naturally, a woman with such a macabre viewpoint would have friends who skirted the more dangerous areas of life. Those friends are awesome but a large part of the tale hinges on what happens to/around Viv so I don’t want to give anything about her storyline away. I will say that she is utterly wonderful. Strong, resourceful, bright, beautiful - she’s an amazing young woman. My heart was pounding as I neared the end of the book since I both wanted to know and feared what happened to this glorious girl.
Ms. St. James has perfected her prose style for these gothic mysteries, and her atmospheric storytelling delivers a truly vivid sense of imminent danger with every turn of the page. She skillfully combines both elements of the tale - the supernatural menace and the real life villains - to convey the intense sense of peril felt by the heroines. Some writers tell you a story and others invite you into one. With this book, Ms. James definitely does the latter. I was especially impressed that she was able to do this in a modern setting. Our high-tech western society tends to dispel any belief in things/events that don’t have practical, logical explanations but the author weaves the paranormal elements so adroitly into her text that you don’t need to believe in ghosts to accept the Sun Down Motel is haunted.
I’ve enjoyed all of Ms. St. James' novels to varying degrees but The Sun Down Motel is easily one of my favorites. I have no hesitation in recommending it very highly to anyone who even thinks they might be in the mood for a good mystery and is willing to open their mind to the idea that there are indeed more things in heaven and earth than they have dreamt of .
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