The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James Book Review
Updated: Oct 20
Title: The Sun Down Motel
Author: Simone St. James
Rating: ★★★★★ (5/5)
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…
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Trigger Warnings: Murder, Violence, Mentions of Rape, Paranormal
The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James was a 2020 January Book Of The Month pick. It is a book about a woman named Carly moving to the town of Fell to solve the mysterious disappearance of her Aunt Viv 35 years earlier. Right out of the gate you know this story is different, and that assumption remains correct throughout.
In The Sun Down Motel, the paranormal mixes with the mundane of real crime in this gripping tale. It is a tugging match between a classic mystery novel and the paranormal. Everything about the story is vaguely odd so as to draw suspicion to every aspect. The author delivers otherwise strange things in a matter of fact manner that offsets them in the best way possible and changes the pace.
There's a strong voice to the story. A very clear consciousness is apparent. The start of the book into the POV of the person central to the mystery, Viv, is eery - which suits the story remarkably. The tone is both descriptive enough for the reader to understand the meaning behind the words but also curt so as to progress the narrative and not waste time on inconsequential matters.
Having known what is destined to happen regarding her disappearance, the POV of Viv is incredibly thoughtful as you try to pick up on the hints of the future that awaits her at The Sun Down Motel. An uncertainty emanates from the page as you read from the perspective of a character whose fate you know from the synopsis and first pages, even if you aren't aware of the circumstances surrounding it. There's some foresight of her fate in Viv's POV, even if she doesn't understand it yet.
Carly is a dependable narrator it seems from the beginning from her POV, though in her real life that dependability may not translate. She has an obsession with the mystery of her Aunt Viv's missing person's case that is what keeps the entire book moving. Carly spends most of the book falling into the same patterns that claimed her aunt.
This is a family left without answers that still haunts them to this day. Even with most of Viv's closest relatives being long gone, Carly continues to feel the pain of an aunt she never knew. The author writes the painful curiosity of a family who has never healed and a woman determined to learn the truth.
Carly and Viv's family tree and the way it interweaves with the history of the town of Fell is intriguing. Because Fell isn't just a passive setting that contributes nothing to the overall plot. It is a town that adds to the story in every possible measurement. No other town could have done the same job that Fell does. It's is a home to these characters despite all the bad that has happened in its borders.
Viv and Carly's precocious knack for detective work is a driving force that brings them closer to the horrendous happenings in Fell. Obsession is what drives the investigations of the pair. Obsession with a killer. Obsession with a family secret.
There's a realism in the detective aspect in that you don't have a singular person dropping a massive info dump that solves everything. It's spread out through small conversations and cues. The evidence stacks and stacks but it takes longer for the reader to piece together what it all means. The revelations that come to lights are unexpected and always coming out of left field, even when you think you have a handle on things.
I will admit that I tend to avoid any stories marked in the paranormal horror category so my frame of reference is small. Saying that, the scenes meant to induce fear achieve their goal. The reader feels the narrator's fear as if it's their own. The author absolutely nailed the ambiance of The Sun Down Motel.
The Sun Down Motel is the most important part of the book and links both Viv and Carly. It also links them to the ghosts who haunt the place. Viv and Carly's connection is tangible even decades apart. The author writes the tentative links that bring the people and times together. From Simon Hess to Viv to Betty Graham to Carly, there's a strong bond between them and the lives they inhabit, or in some cases used to.
It's strange to see these people so important to Viv's journey in 1982 be reintroduced through Carly in the present day. It's unusual how people know something about Viv clearly from their interactions with her in the past but refuse to discuss it candidly with Carly. The two biggest ones being Alma and Marnie. The characters meant to give Carly valuable information about her Aunt Viv are enigmas, hard to get a handle on.
The relationships you see provide a normal element to the otherworldly story. They can seem superficial on the surface as they are overshadowed by the mystery but they're also just generally good which I think can be discredited a lot. There are flickers of romance between Nick, a resident of The Sun Down Motel, and Carly that is just hinted at enough to pique readers' attention. I enjoyed the fact that while romance is present it is put in the backseat for the entirety of the book while the mystery continues to take the wheel.
The characters are strange but somehow realistic. They resonate with the reader even if they are their own brand of unique. There's a courageousness to the characters that stems from their need to know the truth, whether it is stupid or not is another question. The characters have depth in them even in just the first few chapters. You see their struggles and fears plastered before your eyes.
There's a very appropriate commentary on the way women who crimes are committed against are always somehow blamed for the atrocities that happen to it. They also talk about the reality for women everywhere, that it could be any one of us. Viv understands the world very differently to the rest of us but yet somehow in a kindred bond to women everywhere.
The alternating POVs for each chapter is a nice contrast between the past and present. It pulls the reader between the timelines as you try to discover how they intersect. The author has an understanding of which POV to extend in each individual moment so you are never bored by the narrator. The pacing is the true mark of the greatness of this story. It switches and changes with ease from stable to a dramatic incline. The author is really great at a chapter drop that leaves the reader scrambling to find out more.
After patiently waiting for its arrival as my BOTM pick so I could dive into the story, The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James looked like a mystery that would at least be passable. But in the end it turned out to be so much better than that. This book has earned a place as a new great 2020 read for me. It's definitely made me more inclined to look at other mysteries on the Book of the Month site.
Official Purchase Links For The Sun Down Motel: Book Depository
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