The drive-in motel: a crumbling component of two-lane highway small-town Americana, with its neon signs (always with several letters burn out), burnt-orange carpets and faux wood-paneling décor, and the ubiquitous Magic Fingers on the beds. Creepy, desolate, and the perfect setting for best-selling author Simone St. James’s latest gothic-style mystery novel, The Sun Down Motel.
The story unfolds along two timelines- Vivian Delaney’s in 1982 and her niece, Carly Kirk’s in the present day. Viv left an unhappy broken home as a young adult, only to disappear shortly after while working the night shift at the desk in The Sun Down Motel in the small town of Fell, NY. 35 years later, her niece Carly, a young college student who just lost her mother, travels to Fell in hopes of solving the mystery and connecting to a piece of her lost family.
When Carly arrives, the town appears strangely unaffected by the passage of time. Carly is eerily pulled down the same path her aunt followed- a space opens up in the same apartment building her aunt lived in, and the night clerk job at the motel is vacated. Compelled to learn her aunt’s fate, Carly accepts these openings and settles in. But will she be able to discover the truth of the past without succumbing to it?
St. James is a very talented writer. Her characters are well-drawn and captivating. The settings are vivid and fully manifest. Her style feels a bit like that of James M. Cain, but perhaps with a few decades of modernity added. She writes about the same gritty, hard-edged side of American, and the ugliness that can be lurking in the shadows behind it. The story line has an interesting blend of the plausible mystery akin to Kathy Reichs, but with a dash of a Stephen King supernatural element reminiscent of The Shining. Not the latter half of the book where the lid of reality comes off, but those spooky, early chapters where you’re not quite sure if you really saw what you thought you saw or if you just might be losing your mind. Riding the line between the mystery and supernatural genres, St. James tells a story that pulls the reader along like a magnet.
The “book you can’t put down” is very much a cliché, but those of us who read regularly know the truth of it. That book whose story is so compelling that it so invades your mental reality that it feels unnatural to interrupt the story. Even at 3 am when tomorrow is a workday, you just can’t interrupt the drama that is playing out on the pages. This is one of those books. If you are a fan of mysteries and back-roads America, The Sun Down Motel is a must-read.