The Sun Down Motel

The Sun Down MotelThe Sun Down Motel
by Simone St. James
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9780440000174
Publication Date: February 18, 2020
Pages: 327
Genre: Mystery, Suspense
Publisher: Berkley

Something hasn’t been right at the roadside Sun Down Motel for a very long time, and Carly Kirk is about to find out why in this chilling new novel from the New York Times bestselling and award-winning author of The Broken Girls.

Upstate New York, 1982. Viv Delaney wants to move to New York City, and to help pay for it she takes a job as the night clerk at the Sun Down Motel in Fell, New York. But something isnʼt right at the motel, something haunting and scary.

Upstate New York, 2017. Carly Kirk has never been able to let go of the story of her aunt Viv, who mysteriously disappeared from the Sun Down before she was born. She decides to move to Fell and visit the motel, where she quickly learns that nothing has changed since 1982. And she soon finds herself ensnared in the same mysteries that claimed her aunt.


I am not a fan of horror, but I’m a big fan of old-fashioned ghost stories, when read in broad daylight.  I’ve been a big fan of Simone St. James’ ghost stories since I first found The Haunting of Maddy Claire, the first of … five?… historical ghost stories.  She branched off in a new direction with The Broken Girls, going with a dual time-line plot, which I read hesitantly, but enjoyed thoroughly.  The Sun Down Motel is another such book: a dual time-line mystery firmly rooted around a haunted place, this time a hotel that was pretty much doomed before it ever opened its doors.

I’m still a fan of St. James – I think this was a riveting read, and I devoured it in 2 sittings (daylight hours, all of them), but it wasn’t as good as some of her others for two reasons, both purely subjective.  The first was the heavy handedness of the message: that women have always been, and sadly will always be, to some extent, vulnerable and expendable.  This is as unavoidable a fact as it is an inexcusable one, but more subtle writing would have had more powerful an impact.  Instead, there were times – just a few – that I felt like I was the choir and I was being preached at.  This wasn’t a massive issue; it was just enough to pull me out of my head and the story a time or two.

The second reason is almost silly:  the ghosts.  They were almost exactly my right level of scary, but, and it took me some time to figure this out, they didn’t have quite the effect on me as the ghosts in her previous books, because they never really focused on the main characters.  These hauntings were almost the remnant-kind: they were there acting in an endless loop, whether anyone witnessed or not, although there was a trigger.  The main ghost communicated with the historical time-line mc, but only once without being pushed into it by Viv.  The other ghosts communicated with the present day mc, Carly, but benignly.  They were spooky, absolutely, but at a remove, so that they fell just short of spine-tingling.

And I guess, as I write this I was left unsatisfied by Nick’s story; it felt like it should be going somewhere and it didn’t.  I’m also disappointed that there was never an explanation for the present-day entry in the guest book of one James March who registered the day Carly and Nick had their first real experience with the Sun Down Motel.  That was a BIG little thing to leave hanging with no follow up.

But overall, it was a good story; I liked that both Viv and Carly had solid friendships in their timelines; I liked that Nick was her support from pretty much page 1, and I liked the investigatory process of the mystery plot, even if I thought Viv was a reckless idiot.  The story sucked me in, and I remain a solid fan of St. James’ books.

Left to my own devices, I’d have read this book as soon as I got it back in August, but I held off because it was a perfect fit for Halloween Bingo’s Ghost Stories square.

The Betel Nut Tree Mystery (Crown Colony, #2)

The Betel Nut Tree MysteryThe Betel Nut Tree Mystery
by Ovidia Yu
Rating: ★★★½
Series: Crown Colony Mystery #2
Publication Date: June 12, 2018
Pages: 312
Publisher: Constable

What we came to think of as the betel nut affair began in the middle of a tropical thunderstorm in December 1937 . . .

Singapore is agog with the news of King Edward VIII's abdication to marry American heiress Wallis Simpson. Chen Su Lin, now Chief Inspector Le Froy's secretarial assistant in Singapore's newly formed detective unit, still dreams of becoming a journalist and hopes to cover the story when the Hon Victor Glossop announces he is marrying an American widow of his own, Mrs Nicole Covington, in the Colony. But things go horribly wrong when Victor Glossop is found dead, his body covered in bizarre symbols and soaked in betel nut juice.

The beautiful, highly-strung Nicole claims it's her fault he's dead . . . just like the others. And when investigations into her past reveal a dead lover, as well as a husband, the case against her appears to be stacking up. Begrudgingly on Le Froy's part, Su Lin agrees to chaperon Nicole at the Farquhar Hotel, intending to get the truth out of her somehow. But as she uncovers secrets and further deaths occur, Su Lin realises she may not be able to save Nicole's life - or even her own.


I’m not sure what to say about this book; it both is and isn’t the type of mystery I normally read.  The plotting and setting is totally in my wheelhouse, but I don’t really connect with the characters, and it’s always easier to really get into books where you connect with the characters. The secondary characters are, for me, the most lively and fleshed out of the lot, and I enjoyed their short time on the pages.

The setting of pre-WWII Singapore is a rich setting about which I know nothing, so I find that part of the reading compellingly interesting.  Yu does a spectacular job bringing the monsoon season to life, as well as the city itself.

There are two reveals in the plot of The Betel Nut Tree Mystery, and unfortunately, both were transparent.  I knew the identity of the columnist after the first few chapters, and I guessed who the murderer was soon thereafter.  This unfortunate transparency wasn’t enough to stop me reading the book, obviously, but it did ding my rating.

In spite of this post making it sound like I only found the book to be ‘meh’, I’m looking forward to reading the next book; even if the mysteries themselves aren’t perfect, their setting and time are, and I want to see what happens next.

I read this book off my TBR as part of Halloween Bingo 2020, for the International Women of Mystery square.

The Thirteen Problems

The Thirteen ProblemsThe Thirteen Problems
by Agatha Christie
Rating: ★★★★½
Series: The Agatha Christie Collection #
Publication Date: September 2, 2002
Pages: 201
Genre: Mystery
Publisher: Agatha Christie Ltd/Planet Three Publishing

Thirteen short stories of unsolved crimes, solved by Miss Marple.


 

I (re)read this book for two reasons:  I belong to a group reading Agatha Christie’s oeuvre in order of publication, and it fit a Halloween Bingo prompt – 13.  Either one of those reasons would have been a good enough excuse to read this charming little collection of Miss Marple showing everyone up.

13 short stories: the first 6 of which share a common tie of being stories told at the Tuesday Night Club, an impromptu gathering where each person tells the tale of a mystery that went unsolved at the time.  The next 6 stories are tied together in a similar way, as stories all told around the dining table one evening.  The last story is a ‘stand-alone’ although it relies on the friendship established in the previous stories between Miss Marple and Sir Henry Clithering.

Without exception, each story is excellent.  Some are more excellent than others; in my opinion, The Blue Geranium is the absolute stand-out, though Motive vs Opportunity comes close.  The weakest was probably the last, for me, Death by Drowning.  It’s solid, but in comparison, duller than the previous 12 stories.

I have a confession to make about Agatha Christie’s books:  I dislike both Miss Marple and Hercule Poirot.  I find that in the longer books Miss Marple tends to natter on a bit too much and plays the “old spinster” and “aww shucks” hands a little too strongly.  Hercule Poirot is just … an amalgamation of the worst traits of Holmes and Dupin is as close I can come to a description.  I don’t find him as comical as most.

However, these short stories offer the perfect dose of Miss Marple: for almost all the stories, her participation is relegated to the end, so the simpering is contained.  I also really tried, while reading these, to re-imagine Miss Marple in my mind by remembering the subjectivity of the descriptor ‘old’ and the stereotype of ‘spinster’.  Yes, Miss Marple has white hair and knits, but I know many a 50-60 year old that has white hair and knits.  I don’t recall her age ever being mentioned in the books I’ve read so far, so perhaps I dislike Miss Marple because of popular portrayals, combined with current attitudes about the adjectives that Christie used 100 years ago, when they covered broader spectrums.

I was partially successful; it was a struggle.  Ingrained conceptions die hard.  Fortunately I have a lot of books ahead of me to use for mental re-programming.  Now if only I could figure out a way to like Poirot…

As I mentioned, I read this for Halloween Bingo 2020 to fit the 13 square.

Love and Death Among the Cheetahs (Royal Spyness, #13)

Love and Death Among the CheetahsLove and Death Among the Cheetahs
by Rhys Bowen
Rating: ★★★★
Series: Royal Spyness #13
Publication Date: August 6, 2019
Pages: 304
Publisher: Berkley

The author starts this instalment with an apology in advance; the book is set in Africa – Kenya – during the late 20’s/early 30’s, a time when race relations and the views of the British Empire (as were the rest of the world) were shameful.

This had me braced for difficult reading, but I have to say, that was not the disclaimer I needed.  In true cozy style, Bowen acknowledged the dichotomy and inequality between white and black without really verbalising it.  What caught me unawares (and shouldn’t have; I can only wonder if the pre-apology diverted me), was the casual references to hunting big game.  Of course it was a thing back then, and of course I should have seen it coming.

The other unexpected part of the story was the behaviour of the upper class in Kenya; a risqué path for a cozy, but done well by the author, and based on actual events and a real person: Lady Idina Sackville.  Bowen closes with a short bibliography of texts she used in an effort to write about the times accurately.

All in all, another enjoyable instalment in a long-running series that has remained fairly strong throughout, balancing cheeky naiveté and interesting murder plots.

A Sprig of Sea Lavender

A Sprig of Sea LavenderA Sprig of Sea Lavender
by J.R.L. Anderson
Rating: ★★★
isbn: 312753772
Publication Date: January 1, 1978
Pages: 176
Genre: Mystery
Publisher: St. Martin's Press

I bought this a few years ago, when Otto Penzler was selling his collection through his bookshop, Mysterious Books.  It’s a review copy of an author I’d never heard of, but the short catalog blurb made it sound interesting: mysterious death on a train, unknown works by Gainsborough, Turner and Constable found with the body, along with a  sprig of – you guessed it – sea lavender.

This is a mid-century mystery, and it suffered from the usual quirks of that age:  instant, yet chaste, romance, and a complete disregard of the fair-play rules of mystery plotting.  As such, the reader, by the end, is presented with a fait accompli in both the romance and the mystery’s resolution, without having any idea whatsoever how the main character got there, although he does explain it all at the very end.

By today’s standards, it’s all a bit thin, naive and 2 dimensional, but I had fun with it nevertheless.  It wasn’t trying to be anything other than an entertaining mystery and, while I’ve read others that are greater successes, it generally achieved its goal.

What Lola Wants (Lola Cruz, #4)

What Lola WantsWhat Lola Wants
by Melissa Bourbon
Rating: ★★★
Series: Lola Cruz #
Publication Date: July 30, 2019
Pages: 244
Genre: Mystery
Publisher: Henery Press

The first three books in this series were published years ago, and, I’m guessing, got dropped from the publisher.  I was disappointed at the time because I enjoyed the series, and I generally enjoyed the author’s mystery writing.  Fast forward several years later, and Henery Press published this fourth instalment.

Meh.  Either my tastes changed, or the author lost her groove during the hiatus.  It was still an interesting plot, and I still enjoyed the characters, but a lot of her romance writing history bled through into the story and the chapters’ angst.  And seriously, the editor or author need to repeat things over and over is grating on my nerves.  Lola’s always wanted to be a detective; she knows jujitsu; I get it and I got it the first time it was mentioned.  I’m smart that way.

Not sure this series is for me anymore.

Stick Together (Awkward Squad, #2)

Stick TogetherStick Together
by Sam Gordon, Sophie Hénaff
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 9781635060157
Series: Awkward Squad #2
Publication Date: April 2, 2019
Pages: 299
Genre: Mystery
Publisher: MacLehose Press

I can’t remember how I discovered the first book in this series, The Awkward Squad, but I thoroughly enjoyed it; it felt fresh and it amused me, and I chalked up any small irritations to the translation from the French.

This second book was much the same, although there were more straight-up translation issues this time; errors that should have been caught in editing – like saying the ‘France people’ instead of the ‘French People’ in one spot.  And a few things were just cultural references I didn’t understand, not being French myself.  Glossing over them didn’t affect my understanding of the plot or the mystery, though undoubtedly I missed a layer of enjoyment.

The series focuses on a department of the police judiciaire, which was occasionally referred to as PJs, which made me giggle more than it should have.  This department was created as a repository for all the misfits that couldn’t be fired; they were established in an old office building offsite with all the cold case files that have never been solved, and then left to fend for themselves.

I didn’t expect this to work as well as it does, but I enjoy reading about the individual misfits and how their odd contributions further the pursuit of criminals and solve cases.  It’s far-fetched, sure, but it never feels silly or slapstick, somehow.

It’s not perfect, but it’s highly enjoyable, and I sincerely hope the author continues to write more in the series, and that they continue to be translated into English.

The Man that Got Away (Constable Twitten Mystery, #2)

The Man That Got AwayThe Man That Got Away
by Lynne Truss
Rating: ★★★★
isbn: 1408890534
Series: Constable Twitten Mystery #2
Publication Date: September 17, 2019
Pages: 304
Genre: Mystery
Publisher: Bloomsbury Publishing

I’m not an expert, but to me this book and its predecessor is just quintessentially English.  I’ve been a fan of Truss’ non-fiction for years, and always found her writing and wit excellent, and I genuinely enjoyed her first Constable Twitten book A Shot in the Dark. So I snapped up this sequel as soon as I heard about it.

If you’ve ever watched Yes, Minster, or Black Adder, or even Benny Hill, and laughed, you may enjoy this mystery series.  But you absolutely have to suspend disbelief because there’s a lot of silliness and dry mockery; the reward is not only the chance to be amused in a time of little amusement, but an impressive, intricately plotted mystery.  There were so many balls in the air, and Truss kept them all up there without any apparent effort or stumbling.  It started slow for me, but it gained momentum as this complexity revealed itself.

A lot of fun and I remain a big fan of Truss.