Ginny Mallory is a widow. She owns a small motor-in motel on a major highway in South Georgia. The summer heat is still strong in the waning days of October, and she is tired from a long summer season. The story opens with Ginny fighting an uncooperative rollaway bed. The guests are not cordial and treat her less like an equal and more like the hired help.
As the evening progresses Ginny’s motel begins to fill-up and we are introduced to the four secondary players in the story—Ginny’s dead husband Scott, a full-time motel resident named Johnny Benton, a strange motel guest who insists on parking his car behind the motel, and a would-be suitor named Don Ferris.
The story revolves around Ginny—a single and lonely woman trying to operate a business in 1950s America. Ferris wants to marry Ginny, but he admits it is not entirely because he loves her; Benton is a friend, but he seemingly has a dark underside that may surprise both Ginny and the reader; a guest that is the catalyst for a long and frightening night; and a dead husband whose long shadow is cast across Ginny’s life like a long heavy rain.
“In a Small Motel” is an accomplished and full-bodied story—the characters each have their own subtle and convincing motives. The setting is brilliantly realized. The climate is described with short visual blasts:
“Thick October heat lay heavily over South Georgia. Though she walked briskly, she felt as if all the heat of the long summer just past had turned the marrow of her bones to soft stubborn lead.”
And Ginny is perfectly cast as a strong and resilient woman in a quandary—she doesn’t know whether to go forward or back. The memory of her husband is a prison. A prison she does not want to escape, and the motel is its literal translation.
“In a Small Motel” is a character study cast within the confines of a rich and textured crime story. The characters—the way they act, talk, and shift from one desire and fear to another—control the story and plot. It is also a tightly woven story that MacDonald never loses control of; everything is in place and works perfectly on the reader. The suspense is pure and it ratchets tighter and tighter as the story plays out.
There are more than a few surprises and the writing is so fresh and alive—even after 54 years—that the reader can nearly smell the autumn Georgia air, the car exhaust, hear the highway noise, and feel the empty and hard fear escalating from a nervous vibration to a deep and harrowing roar.