Book Review: The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James
By Angie BarryFebruary 19, 2020
The Sun Down Motel by Simone St. James is an eery, spellbinding tale spanning two generations of women and centering on an Upstate New York motel where something hasn’t been right for a very long time.
Fell, New York, 1982: Twenty-year-old Viv Delaney leaves an unhappy home in Illinois for New York City but finds herself in Fell instead. It’s a small, dark town, but that suits her well. Viv takes the night-shift job at the Sun Down Motel and soon realizes the motel—and Fell—are much darker and more dangerous than she expected.
Fell, New York, 2017: Twenty-year-old Carly Kirk has come to Fell to solve her family’s greatest mystery: the 1982 disappearance of her beautiful Aunt Viv. Almost immediately, she begins to mirror Viv’s life, moving into her old apartment and working at the eerie Sun Down Motel, unchanged since 1982 and the last place anyone ever saw her.
But the Sun Down, it seems, isn’t quite as empty as it looks. Locked doors open late at night. The lights go out without warning. It becomes clear that there are longtime guests who never checked out.
Could Viv be one of them?
As Carly digs deeper into Fell’s past, frightening implications surface. “There are a lot of dead girls in Fell,” she’s told, but were those murders random, isolated crimes of passion? Or was there a serial killer at work in Fell? A killer who may have crossed paths with Viv Delaney?
On the radio, they talked about a body. A girl found in a ditch off Melborn Road, ten miles from here. A girl named Tracey Waters, last seen leaving a friend’s house in a neighboring town. Eighteen years old, stripped naked and dumped in a ditch. They’d found her body two days after her parents reported her missing.
As she sat in her car, twenty-year-old Viv Delaney’s hand shook as she listened to the story. She thought about what it must be like to lie naked as the half-frozen rain pelted your helpless skin. How horribly cold that would be. How it was always girls who ended up stripped and dead like roadkill. How it didn’t matter how afraid or how careful you were — it could always be you.
Especially here. It could always be you.
In a see-sawing narrative, Simone St. James takes us from Viv’s 1982 to Carly’s 2017, giving voice to two very different young women connected by blood and a passion for both true crime and justice.
This is a story of darkness, violence, and obsession, of human monsters and supernatural warnings. In short, it’s a true St. James thriller, where the (unsettling, creepy) ghosts are secondary to some very real-world threats and the female protagonists are stubborn and driven.
And St. James understands the power of the perfect setting: liminal spaces like rundown highway motels are inherently spooky, just the sort of place where you’d expect to find ghosts and bloody violence. The location and the predominantly night-set story combine to weave a hypnotic, haunting spell.
The world was different at night. Not just dark, not just quiet, but different. Three o’clock in the morning was the worst time, almost delirious, when she could half believe anything could happen — ghosts, elves, time travel, every Twilight Zone episode she’d ever seen.
And she sort of liked it.
Night people were not the same as day people. The good people of Fell, whoever they were, were sound asleep at three a.m. Those people never saw the people Viv saw: the cheating couples having affairs, the truckers strung out on whatever they took to stay away, the women with blackened eyes who checked out at five a.m. to futilely go home again. These weren’t people suburban Viv Delaney would ever have seen in a hundred years. They weren’t people she would ever have talked to. There was an edge to them, a hard collision with life, that she hadn’t known was possible in her soft cocoon. It wasn’t romantic, but something about it drew her. It fascinated her. She didn’t want to look away.
The Sun Down Motel is also a story of rage. The anger that comes from being belittled because of your gender, race, age, or appearance. The burning frustration of your warnings being ignored. The cold fear of the uncertain. Viv and Carly both understand at a fundamental level just how easy it is for women to be brutalized, murdered, or disappeared, and they both rage against that hard truth in their own way.
“You’re a nice girl, but you aren’t trained for this kind of thing,” a character tells Viv at one point. “I don’t know why you think it’s connected.” And inwardly, Viv agrees that she’s “just a clueless girl, not a cop or a judge.” That she “has no area of expertise. […] Except being a potential victim. That was her area of expertise.”
St. James dedicated the book to the “odd girls, the nerdy girls, and the murderinos,” and the story that follows is absolutely a macabre love letter for that audience. This is a true-crime-inspired novel full of pathos for the girls who didn’t survive—and righteous fury on behalf of those who fought back and sought justice to the bitter end.
I could see it so easily, how you could walk through the door and never come out. How reading about the dead girls would lead to thinking about them all the time, to obsessing about them. Because after all this time, after decades and overturned convictions and reams of Internet speculation, no one knew who freaking killed them. No one at all.
If I was going to solve this, I was going to have to go through the door.
So I went.
The Sun Down Motel is another knockout by an author who proved her skill long ago and a must-read for established fans and newcomers alike. Love the paranormal? This is the ghost story for you. Looking for a compelling thriller to set your pulse pounding? You can’t go wrong here. Hungry for a mystery sharp with feminist rage? Check.
And more than anything else, are you someone who has always been fascinated by true crime? Someone who watched Unsolved Mysteries every night, even when it gave you nightmares? Is your copy of I’ll Be Gone in the Dark next to a shelf full of Anne Rule? Do you listen to My Favorite Murder? Are you frustrated that Netflix put a hold on season three of Mindhunter?
Then this book was made for you. It’s a wonderfully crafted and emotional piece of validation for every female true-crime buff.