Set in Sydney, Australia in 2017, Dark Mode is a contemporary thriller and a debut crime novel for Ashley Kalagian Blunt, a writer originally from Canada who has lived in several countries before settling Down Under. With Dark Mode, you don’t get the hot, dusty, isolated setting and the potential for primal darkness often associated with Australian crime fiction – as seen in The Dry, or shows like Mystery Road. Instead, the darkness here is illuminated by iPhone touch screens and flickering server LEDs.
Early one morning, Reagan Carson is out for a run when she makes a shocking discovery – it’s the corpse of a young women with dark, curly hair just like Reagan’s. The body has been cut in half. Naturally, Reagan is freaked out – but instead of calling the police, she runs home and tries to bury the gruesome images deep in her mind. Why wouldn’t she call the police, you’ll wonder? And all will be revealed as you read further into the novel.
So Reagan goes to work. She runs an independent garden centre specialising in rare and exotic species – the sort of thing featured on the book’s cover and exactly what appeals in the gentrified environs of Sydney. In spite of its unique offering, the garden centre isn’t doing well, and the main reason for this is that Reagan refuses to do any digital marketing. Although the plants she sells are eminently Instagram-able, Reagan doesn’t even own a smart phone and hides from social media.
With worries about the dead body in the back of her mind, Reagan meets the advisor at her local bank, who is pushing her towards improving her online presence to boost revenue. She needs to start repaying her business loan. Her mother and father-in-law, with whom she has a very dysfunctional relationship, have also lent her money for the business but she hasn’t paid them back and there’s pressure from that quarter too.
Then Reagan has a bit of good luck in the form of a minor car accident. The handsome man whose car she bumps into is called Bryce and he happens to know a little bit about digital marketing. Soon, not only are they improving the garden centre’s prospects, but they start dating. Reagan feels her life might be moving in the right direction – finally!
But this is crime fiction and author Ashley Kalagian Blunt has a heap of pain coming Reagan’s way. Another body is found and Reagan is feeling ever more conflicted about her decision not to inform the police. Her best friend Min-Lee Chase senses that something is wrong and keeps pressing Reagan, trying to find out why she’s so tense. Min writes non-fiction books about crime and has a special interest in the murders in Sydney. When she finally learns that Reagan saw one of the bodies, Min urges her friend to go to the police. She’s getting increasingly frustrated with Reagan, who refuses to be open with her.
As a reader, this is a frustration you’ll share. And it only gets worse when Reagan starts receiving messages – cryptic at first, and then increasingly threatening. Fraught with fear and tension, but with a fire inside screaming for her to fight back, Reagan is at breaking point. She’s furious that soon after becoming active on social media, awful events from her past are repeating themselves. Meanwhile, Min-Lee has recognised that the Sydney corpses resemble the Black Dahlia case from Los Angeles in 1947. Is Reagan, the florist, being targeted by some kind of Black Dahlia tribute killer? Is she next?
For her debut novel, Ashley Kalagian Blunt has crafted something new and different. This is a book that sets out not only to grab hold of the reader and pull them into Reagan’s psychological turmoil, but also to explore privacy in the digital age and how misogyny that festers online can step into the physical world with horrendous consequences. Reagan’s tormentors are organised and they’re using the dark web, plus a whole range of other technologies, to bring her down. She’s the target of outrageous cruelty because she’s a woman.
Now, this might sound far fetched. However, what occurs in Dark Mode is based on real events the author has researched. Things like this can and do happen. In the UK, two recent cases spring to mind – the rapist David Carrick and the murderer Wayne Couzens. Both were police officers who abused their authority, and while Dark Mode looks less at the police and more at misogyny, there are some parallels to be drawn. Fortunately, though she is reluctant to seek help – to a degree that is frustratingly unreasonable – Reagan summons the strength to hit back. Her daring venture to break into a suspect’s apartment, for example, makes for great reading.
Other critics have called Dark Mode an eye-opening book, and they’re right. With its twists and its tension, with its gentle moments and sudden horrific violence, Dark Mode is a compelling thriller but it also makes for very, very uneasy reading. It is tense and terrifying. Technology has filtered its way into just about every aspect of modern life, but in the wrong hands all that data about ourselves can easily undo us. This is the book that might make you mothball all your social media accounts, scan all your hard drives and go off grid for the next few weeks. Which isn’t a bad idea at all, if you’ve got a good book to read.
Read our interview with Ashley Kalagian Blunt here.
CFL Rating: 4 Stars