by Ashley Kalagian Blunt

Publisher/year: Ultimo Press 2023

Publisher’s Blurb

Once you’re online, there’s nowhere to hide 

Is it paranoia – or is someone watching?
For years, Reagan Carsen has kept her life offline. No socials. No internet presence. No photos. Safe. 
 Until the day she stumbles on a shocking murder in a Sydney laneway. The victim looks just like her.
 As more murders shake the city and she’s increasingly drawn out from hiding, Reagan is forced to confront her greatest fear.
 She’s been found. 
 A riveting psychological thriller drawn from true events, Dark Mode delves into the terrifying reality of the dark web, and the price we pay for surrendering our privacy one click at a time.

Reviewer: Christina Lee

Imagine if sixteen-year-old you had been caught online by someone masquerading as a slightly older high school student, and you had been catfished, and then obsessively stalked, for years. What if the police were uninterested, even after the stalker broke into your home at night? What if your mother totally blamed you for everything that happened?

In her late twenties, Reagan is still not coping with that experience. She has tried running away from it – a few years of English language teaching in South Korea – but eventually has to come back to Sydney and her unresolved terror. Unable to move on, she doesn’t date, has only one friend, doesn’t go out much, and has absolutely no presence online. No email address, no Facebook, no Instagram. No mobile phone. Not surprisingly, her one-woman garden shop is not doing well.

The novel opens powerfully and in classic crime-novel style, with Reagan stumbling across a mutilated, naked, murder victim in a back alley. A woman who looks just like her. It’s more than enough to collapse the small progress she has managed to make over the years, and send her back into hysterical terror. She won’t report her find to the police, let alone anything else she might know or suspect. Not helpful to a murder investigation, and even less so as another woman, and then another, all looking like her, are found dead. But the trauma is too much and she simply can’t. Blunt expertly shows us this, in a sympathetic portrayal of a woman understandably unable to cope with everyday adult life, let alone with a horrific crime that resonates with her teenage trauma.

Blunt has written a strong crime novel, with plenty of uncertainty, tension, clues and red herrings. Reagan is a realistically flawed protagonist, with an endless capacity to miss what’s going on and – entirely understandably – to interpret everything through the lens of her previous victimisation.  Structurally the novel works satisfyingly well, starting slowly and building tension to the final dramatic scenes and eventual resolution. At the same time, Blunt uses the novel to explore the dark minds and twisted logic of men who hate women, drawing on her background research on true crimes and on disgustingly misogynistic corners of the dark web, without ever losing the story’s sense of particularity and immediacy.

I found this an interesting and engaging read, and would strongly recommend it. My few minor queries, as I read, were matters of stylistic choice, rather than actual problems. For example, the close, almost claustrophobic, focus on Reagan’s experiences and point of view means there is little development of the other characters. Because Reagan is too damaged to have the mental space to think about other people, they tend to appear as ciphers rather than fully formed characters. This is disappointing at times (I would love to know how her hilariously ghastly mother got to be that way), but of course it’s a classic Agatha Christie ploy: the narrator doesn’t know enough about any of the suspects for the reader to be able to rule them in or out, making for greater tension and room for plenty of red herrings.