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The Last Motel
Biting Dog paperback $16.95
review by David Hebblethwaite
Brett McBean's début novel takes us to the Lodgepole Pine Motel in the mountains near Melbourne where - on Hallowe'en night (when else?) - three cabins are rented by people with something to hide. There's Al and Eddy, two chancers who set out to steal a car and ended up with more than they bargained for. There's Morrie and Judy, who left home in a hurry after a misunderstanding on their doorstep turned nasty. There's Wayne, who checks in with Simon, a young man whom, Wayne claims is his son - but, needless to say, the truth is rather more sinister. And then there's Madge, the widowed owner of the motel, who has no idea what a night it's going to be...
Before going into the novel itself, I want to quote a paragraph from the author's afterword, in which he explains his intentions:
The Last Motel is a very cinematic book. Just like those horror films of the late 1970s and early 1980s, which run for barely 90 minutes but contain more than their share of blood and guts, my book is action-packed and gruesome. I wanted to capture the intensity of those films. You could say I wanted to write a low-budget book.
So this is a book that thinks like a movie, specifically a schlock-fest. Fair enough, that's how I'll judge it; but I'll have to throw out some of the usual criteria. Take the characterisation, for instance. McBean restricts himself to seven characters in a bunch of log cabins; an ideal setting, perhaps, for an intense character study. But that isn't McBean's aim. So, while it would be nice to really find out (say) what makes a serial killer tick, the point in a story like The Last Motel is that the serial killer is a 'serial killer', and that's all you need to know. However, the novel's rather sketchy characterisation does give rise to a few bizarre situations, most notably at the end of part one, when one character comes on to another, and the other acquiesces, with no warning that either was likely to do so.
So much for the characters; what about the plot? Once again, you don't need that much of a plot in a schlock-fest, so I shouldn't be too hard on The Last Motel here. Nevertheless, the plot is unsatisfactory. It relies rather too much on coincidence to be entirely credible, and there's a feeling of arbitrariness about the progression of events; it seems that things tend to happen because it's convenient, not because the characters want them to happen. Without wishing to give too much away, the ending is less, 'Now I've got you where I want you!' and more, 'Oh, you happen to be here.' I would have expected a bit more design from the bad guy in a story like this. There's also a subplot that begins intriguingly but ends up going nowhere, having added nothing to the story.
And now we come to the style and the atmosphere, which is the most important part of a schlock-fest. To McBean's credit, he largely avoids the pitfall of overwriting, which would be easy enough in this kind of tale. But he goes too far the other way, not injecting enough colour into his prose, so the whole thing is quite un-engaging. This is the real problem with The Last Motel: it doesn't achieve what it sets out to. It has the gore and violence, but not the kind of writing needed to bring it to life. As it stands, I can't recommend it.
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