Carly Kirk is twenty in 2017, drifting after the death of her mother and curious about a family tragedy that no one ever discussed: the disappearance of her aunt, Vivian Delaney, on November 29, 1982. Also twenty at the time, she was never seen again after vanishing during her overnight shift at the check-in desk of the Sun Down Motel in Fell, NY.
So Carly, always intrigued by the aunt who was never discussed by her mother or grandmother, takes her small inheritance and a leave of absence from college to move to Fell and investigate her aunt’s disappearance. She nabs the same job at the Sun Down Motel, which rivals The Overlook for Most Frightening Literary Lodging, and begins investigating the 35-year-old mystery.
From her first night at the motel’s desk, Viv knows something is definitely off-balance at the roadside hotel. The lights flicker, she smells smoke, each room’s doors fling themselves open at the same time, and a ghostly woman repeatedly urges her to RUN! By researching the history of the town, she finds that the ghostly woman was Betty Graham, a schoolteacher whose body was found on the construction site of the Sun Down Motel in 1979.
Vivian believes she’s discovered a serial killer, a traveling salesman who always registers under a different name when he stays at the Sun Down. Strangely enough, he lives in Fell. So why is he staying at a motel just a few blocks from his home?
In 2017, Carly is tracking down people who knew her aunt – specifically, a retired night shift police officer named Alma Trent and a photographer named Marnie Clark. Both women are tight-lipped about the 35-year-old mystery, but a recently-returned local staying in the hotel, Nick Harkness, who earned his own peculiar brand of notoriety by escaping his father’s gun, joins Carly in her search. He picks up on clues Carly misses, which leads them on a search resulting in a disturbing and unexpected discovery.
The book smoothly switches back and forth between Viv in 1982 and Carly in 2017 and packs plenty of surprises. The motel is haunted by the ghosts of people who have died there – the smoking ghost is a desk clerk killed by a heart attack six months after a young boy hit his head in the pool and died; the latter roams the property in a t-shirt and swim shorts, conspicuous in the frigid upstate New York winter. And Betty is always there, clad in a conservative 70s floral dress, sometimes bloodied, sometimes not, always advising both girls to run – a command neither ultimately follows.
Although The Sun Down Motel follows many mystery and horror conventions, not everything is as it seems. The novel bogs down in the middle but repays that toil with a phenomenal conclusion, which is a triumph of ingenuity, will, and strength for both the characters and the author. It’s definitely a must-read for fans of bite-your-nails suspense and unbounded female resourcefulness.