I usually don’t like my mystery mixed with horror. If I’m in the mood for supernatural horror – which I will be a few times per year – I like it straightforward, the more gothic the better and with fairly traditional genre fiends: Witches, vampires, etc. My preferred mystery/crime fiction choices are normally dark enough without shape-changers, spellcasters or anything with fangs. But usually doesn’t mean always.
For a while, it seemed like Simone St. James’ 2020 The Sun Down Motel’s handsome cover (designed by Sarah Oberrender, based on a Tom Hogan photo) was everywhere I looked, including my own TBR list. As luck would have it, I got the book just as my day job headed into its annual late-winter/early-spring ‘crazy time’ – extra hours, arrive early/leave late, weekend time expected. Among the casualties of that schedule: reading time. I mention this only because I suspect I’d have burned through St. James’ novel in a weekend or a couple looooong evenings, but with leisure time scarce, it took several frustrating days instead (frustrated only by my reluctance to put the book down).
Back in 1982, twenty-year old Viv Delaney, armed with vague intentions of heading to NYC to become an actress, arrives in the small hamlet of Fell, New York. On an impulse, she decides to linger, taking a job as the night shift desk clerk at the Sun Down Motel on the outskirts of town. Working the graveyard shift way out on a desolate rural highway, all alone with only a handful of quirky guests for company sounds creepy enough. Encountering ‘things that go bump in the night’ – lights going on and off and room doors opening and closing on their own, unexplained odors, spectral figures appearing in the dark – ought to send her packing. Instead, she continues to show up for her nightly vigil, even after learning about the recent vicious murders of several young women…each still unsolved, and somehow tied back to the Sun Down Motel itself.
In 2017, Carly Kirk drops out of college after her mother’s death and shows up in Fell, hunting for clues to what happened to her aunt Vivian — presumed murdered, having vanished altogether from her night shift desk clerk job at the Sun Down Motel. Which is now even more desolate, run down and creepy than it was back in 1982, and whatever lurked inside its dark rooms and run-down corridors has been stirred up again by Carly’s arrival. Taking the same night shift job her Aunt Viv held 35 years earlier, Carly digs deep into Fell’s hidden secrets, apparently asking questions some people want to leave unanswered. Bad things happened in Fell and in the Sun Down Motel…and more are about to happen again.
Simone St. James arranges her novel with chapters alternating between 1982 and 2017 (mostly) and in different POV’s. There’s an unrelenting sense of bleak fatalism hovering all around Viv’s 1982 narrative, each event and discovery leading to what seems like an inevitable end. Carly’s dogged investigation is no less eerie, and in lesser hands this could all get unwieldly pretty quick. But RITA and Arthur Ellis award-winning author St. James keeps it under control, even if this reader occasionally mixed up a secondary character or two, briefly misplacing them in the wrong era. My bad. But then, there is a widening list of suspicious characters – alive and not so much – and everyone in Fell seems to be hiding a secret, all of this carefully parceled out in a steady and addictive stream of hints, clues, surprises and chapter-ending cliff-hangers that really, really work effectively.
I’ll take for granted that Simone St. James has already deposited fat checks for movie rights (or at least an option). If not, Hollywood better get on it. This story’s tailor made for the big screen, and the author paints one vividly dark scene after another like verbal storyboarding. I hadn’t read any of Simone St. James’ prior novels, though I see she has several. 2018’s Broken Girls looks interesting, and I think I can still do with some more of St. James’ eerie storytelling after devouring The Sun Down Motel.