The Sun Down Motel by Simone St James

If you're one of the (few - I'm under no illusions here) people who read my book reviews you might have noticed that I'm a sucker for ghost stories, murder mysteries and psychological thrillers. The Sun Down Motel by Simone St James is a combination of all three, so it immediately caught my eye.

College student Carly has always been curious about the disappearance of her aunt in the 1980s. Viv left home for the bright lights of New York City, but only made it as a far as Fell, an isolated small town upstate. Carly knows Viv took a job working nights as a motel receptionist, but went missing not long afterwards, and after Carly's mother dies, Carly decides to go to Fell herself to see if she can find out more about the aunt she never knew. Upon her arrival she's surprised to find the Sun Down Motel not only still standing but exactly as it was back in 1982, complete with a paper booking system and landlines. And coincidentally, the motel needs a new night receptionist.

The story takes place in two time frames, with some chapters set in 2017 from Carly's perspective and others in 1982 from the point of view of Viv. In both the past and the present storylines, two things are clear: first, someone has been killing women in Fell, and second, the Sun Down Motel is haunted.

The sense of creeping menace that hangs over the motel is apparent from the moment St James begins to describe it. It's easy enough for authors to set ghost stories in ancient manor houses, Victorian lunatic asylums and ruined abbeys, but the Sun Down is a 1970s concrete motel with a pool, vending machines, TVs and nylon uniforms for the staff, and it takes skill to evoke a sinister atmosphere in such a setting - particularly in the flashback sections of the story, when the smell of cigarettes, lack of computers and so on that feel strange to Carly in 2017 are of course perfectly normal to Viv in 1982. The haunting scenes are chillingly well-executed and, oddly, convincing.

The mystery plot works well too, although thanks to Viv we actually know relatively early on who has been murdering women in Fell in the 70s and 80s - the focus is much more on how it can be proven and whether Carly will manage to make the same connections in 2017, and watching them both try to pull together the threads of the mystery is satisfying. What I did want to know more about though was the killer's psychological motivation, for which I wanted more explanation - there are a lot of serial killer clich├ęs here which felt rather lazy. We know they take pleasure in killing, but I'd like to have known why. There are some pointed observations about victim-blaming and the portrayal of victims in the media, and about the lack of women employed in policing at the time the murders occurred, which I felt could have been expanded upon and yet at the same time less heavy-handed. As it is, it feels a  little shoehorned in.

Some of the characterisation is a little weak. Carly describes herself as a nerdy bookworm  and clearly thinks of herself as oh-so-quirky but there's almost zero evidence of her being any of these things, and at one point she literally wears a t-shirt that says 'books are my life' as if that's the only way she can convince us. Needless to say she's also tough, determined and apparently irresistibly attractive to men. There's also an annoying reliance on the trope of the misunderstood bad boy, which I could really have done without. It's fine for Carly to have a love interest but he doesn't have to be some sort of tortured 2017 James Dean with tousled hair and a flat stomach: this isn't fanfic. I was actually more interested in Carly's flatmate Heather, who is murder-obsessed to the point of mental illness, apparently asexual and certainly more of a genuine oddball than Carly.

The Sun Down Motel is an easy, fun, creepy supernatural mystery that almost reads to me like YA fiction - and I don't mean that disparagingly at all; although the characters are adults and there are one or two 'adult themes', as a Netflix listing might say, The Sun Down Motel has the pace, the sense of resolution and the straightforward readability that I see in a lot of YA, which was what I was looking for when I picked this book up. Despite my criticisms of the elements I felt could have been better, I'd certainly read more by Simone St James.

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