It seems weird to say but murder is trendy these days. Thanks to podcasts and streaming documentaries true crime is in something of a renaissance. Every week, it seems, there’s a new must-see limited series or must-listen podcast dissecting the ins and outs of a strange, terrifying murder case. It’s far from the first time that true crime has come into fashion, but nowadays it seems like everyone fancies themselves an amateur sleuth.
Admittedly, this has made for some great television and eased the pain of countless long-distance drives. There are plenty of lesser options out there for audiences to lose themselves to and there is a vital service provided by these stories. Of course, there’s the terror aspect—what’s scarier than a real-life serial killer haunting the backroads of middle America?—but some studies have suggested that the modern obsession with true crime and murder has less to do with rubbernecking a tragedy and more to do with learning the symptoms of psychopathy and narcissism. They are, in a very real sense, a kind of preparation.
Even still, these stories are, by their nature, haunted. Every killer whose psychology we’re drawn to, whose story we can’t look away from, whose lives we can’t help but dissect, leaves behind a trail of bodies whose ghosts linger. The smiling visages of their victims displayed on the screen carry with them no trace of the sorrow and madness that would later befall them, but the specter of the lives cut short looms ever-present.
It’s not hard then to see the appeal of combining the milieu of true crime with the concept of the ghost story. THE SUN DOWN MOTEL by author Simone St. James does exactly that, weaving a tale that owes as much to My Favorite Murder as it does to The Haunting of Hill House. A work of fiction, St. James manages to capture the intensity of the, well, murder fandom, channeling that energy into a thrilling page-turner that kept me reading until dawn.
The ghosts of THE SUN DOWN MOTEL are both literal and metaphysical, often both at the same time. The titular motel lays at the center of dueling mysteries, one taking place in 1982 and one taking place in 2017. In the 80s, we meet young Viv Delaney, a rebellious young woman who leaves home in search of something grand only to find herself drawn into the bizarre world of Fell, New York, far north of the city that has long called her name. Decades later, Carly Kirk, Viv’s niece, follows in her aunt’s footsteps hoping to shed light on the long-standing family mystery of what happened to Viv.
With a back-and-forth structure, St. James establishes the two central mysteries in parallel. Clues from the past are found in the present; questions from the present are answered in the past. All roads seemingly lead to the dilapidated motel on the side of the highway, where both young women find themselves working 35 years apart. A motel, we soon find, literally haunted by the unsolved sins of Fell’s past.
Viv and Carly’s stories spiral around and towards each other, as each young woman finds themselves drawn to the mysteries of Fell’s past. No one’s willing to admit it, but there may be a serial killer on the loose. Isn’t that always the way it goes? St. James, blessedly, spends less time on the killer than she does on the mystery surrounding them. In this way, she gives voice to the legions of murderinos who are drawn to the world of psychopathy and murder, as well as to the victims, who, here, take the form of the entities haunting The Sun Down.
The dual narrative and dual genre format allow St. James to create a taut, terrifying narrative that revels in both the trappings of true crime and the horror of the ghost story. It’s all at once an homage to the tenacity of murderinos and an exploration of what haunts our pasts. THE SUN DOWN MOTEL is a remarkably fun novel from St. James that should appeal to lovers of mystery and lovers of ghost stories in equal measures. A quick read, it is the perfect novel for dreary Saturdays and stormy nights, one whose mystery will keep you turning page after page until the final truth is revealed. THE SUN DOWN MOTEL arrives Tuesday, February 18, 2020.