Monday, February 17, 2020

Review: The Sun Down Motel

Hi Future Wendy, it's Past Wendy. I'm writing to you from August 25, 2019.  About a week ago your mind got blown when Berkley actually approved your NetGalley request for The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James. The book isn't actually out until February 18, 2020 (um, that's tomorrow for you Future Wendy...) but Past Wendy knew that as much as she would end up regretting it later, she had to read this book Right. Now.  Why regrets?  Because it would mean just having to wait that much longer for St. James' next book.  Past Wendy, having read this book 6 months before the release date is now waiting 6 months longer than Future Wendy for the next book (got all that?).  But seriously, I had to read this book right away.  And, of course, it was all the happy book noises you can imagine.

In 1982, 20-year-old Vivian "Viv" Delaney runs away from her small Illinois town to escape an overbearing mother.  Her parting shot? I'm going to New York City to be an actress!  Where Viv ends up is in upstate Fell, New York.  The town is a bit dark, a bit odd, but something about it speaks to Viv, so she stays.  She gets a job as the night clerk at The Sun Down Motel, one of those seedy around the edges places that never realized it's full potential. However, like Fell itself, there's something not quite right about the motel.  There are unexplained events, ghosts that walk the halls, and given how small Fell is, they sure do have a problem with missing and dead girls.  Then, one night, Viv disappears...without a trace.

Fast forward to 2017 and Viv's niece, Carly Kirk, has landed in Fell.  Carly was born after her aunt's disappearance.  She's presumed dead, but a body was never found and her death left a chasm in the family.  Carly's mother, Viv's younger sister, succumbed to cancer, haunted by her older sister's disappearance.  20-year-old Carly, still grieving for her mom, not sure what she wants to do with her life, decides a break from college is in order. What she knows for sure is she wants answers.  How does a pretty 20-year-old in a small town just vanish? And her body never recovered? It's not right, and Carly decides she's going to go to Fell and get some answers.  She's not even in town for a day before she finds herself a roommate (in her aunt's old apartment no less!) and a job working the night shift at the Sun Down - still just as haunted 30 years later.

St. James' work generally skirts around the fringes of "romantic elements" and while Carly does get a "love interest" over the course of the story, it's very much a secondary element with the suspense and Gothic setting taking center stage.  As creepy as I thought St. James' last book was, this one is even creepier.  As in, it left me feeling unsettled - which having cut my teeth on Nancy Drew and reading Patricia Cornwell by the age of 16 well...unsettling Wendy takes some doing.  Fell is a fictional town, but the upstate New York setting is inspired, the town locked away in time (Carly finds herself pulling old newspapers at the library because the archives haven't been digitized yet) with spotty cell reception, and seriously, No Name Motels are right up there with vans that don't have any side windows.  Creepy.

But the genius of this story is how St. James centers it on the female gaze.  This is, by far, the most interesting female-centric suspense novel I've read in a while because ALL the female characters are interesting, multi-faceted and calling the shots. Viv, realizing nothing is being done about all the murdered women that keep turning up in Fell decides to play amateur sleuth and...solves it.  The cops cannot seem to find a connection between the victims, but she does.  Carly, grieving and determined, wants answers to what happened to Aunt Viv, which means retracing her steps and stumbling across the same mystery of the murdered women.  There's Alma, the only female cop on the Fell police force, dealing with rampant 1982 sexism on the job, and relegated to the night shift because...of course she is.  She's an unvarnished straight-shooter but also kind of sly and slick, which I tend to gravitate towards in female cop and PI characters.  And then there's Marnie, a photographer getting by, occasionally doing freelance for the cops at crime scenes, and entering Viv's orbit because she was hired to tail a married woman meeting her lover at the Sun Down.  These are also women cognizant of the road blocks they face because, men.  The 1982 story line in particular.  It's enraging, but riveting to read about the women circumventing these obstacles thrown in their way.

If I have any gripes about this story it's that I felt the beginning was a little slow to start and the ending a little too rushed - but it's creepy, it's compelling, and it's filled with dynamite female characters working to solve the mystery and find justice.  It's not my favorite of St. James' oeuvre (which is basically splitting hairs anyway) but it's so very good.  Dark, compelling, creepy, the kind of book that keeps you up at night flipping the pages.

Final Grade = A


helen424 said...

I stumbled over this authors work some years ago and love the moment my favourite is Other Side of Midnight but do yourself a favour and never listen to the audio book. The voices are just wrong, so so wrong. The accents are terrible. Dick van Dyke in Mary Poppins is amazing in comparion. They might not grate so much to an American listener. Anyway back to this book, I have waiting for this for a year. Woohoo

Dorine said...

That is a problem when we read her books early. This one was fun. She needs to write faster! LOL

Wendy said...

Helen424: The Other Side of Midnight is also one of my favorites - but it's so hard to choose! I loved that one and her last two books, but I have such a soft spot for Silence for the Dead because I'm a sucker for a nurse heroine. Even when said nurse heroine is an impostor :)

Dorine: I knew I was going to end up regretting reading it SO early but I simply couldn't wait.