Dark Mode is author Ashley Kalagian Blunt‘s first crime novel, and it’s utterly terrifying.

When twenty-six-year-old Reagan Carsen stumbles across a dismembered body in an alley in Sydney on a scorching hot day in 2017, her instinct is not to call the police, but to run and hide. The victim looks just like her, and she’s terrified that the person who stalked her years earlier has escalated his behaviour and is back for her.

She’s tried to protect herself by not owning a smart phone, not using social media, and barely having any web presence. But she runs a small business, and there are cameras everywhere in the city. Could he still be watching her every move, just like he was all those years ago?

Due to its resemblance to an unsolved murder in the United States seventy years earlier, the case is dubbed the Sydney Dahlia murder. And, as the heat grows so do the bodies. All of them so similar in appearance to Reagan that she’s convinced it can’t be a coincidence. Helped by her investigative reporter friend Min, Reagan starts to follow the case more closely, looking for any clues that the murders are being committed by the same person from her past. Then she starts receiving threatening emails, highly personal attacks against her and her business, and she’s running out of people who can help her. Is it all connected? Or is she just being paranoid?

The imagery throughout the book is stark and visceral. Reagan will teeter on a knife’s edge, remembering other moments when she was nearly sucked out to sea, bullied without mercy, or shamed by people who were supposed to love her. Her (very reasonable and well-placed) sense of isolation and paranoia is all too real as she tries to live her life while afraid of everyone in it.

The only thing that brings her comfort is plants and greenery, and the inclusion of these details helps keep the story grounded. As Reagan’s life and mental state slowly disintegrate, she still notices the plants in her neighbour’s garden that need to be watered, still sees the succulents that she gave Min that have miraculously survived, imagines herself as the orchid with no roots that still manages to bloom. These details could be odd and disorienting if they were handled by a less skilled author. But, instead they are beautiful and centering, adding a richness and depth to Reagan’s character as she unravels under the pressures around her.

Blunt has written a story that is technically fiction, but scary beyond belief because everything that occurs in it has happened to someone, somewhere. This story addresses a set of fears and experiences that everyone living in the digital age – and especially women – has experienced at some point, if not regularly.

Doxxing, swatting, catfishing – these dangerous and insidious online practices only become more terrifying when added to the growing far right misogyny that has led to the proliferation of men’s rights hate groups. The anonymity of the dark web plus the visceral animosity and ownership these individuals feel towards the world around them, and women in particular, is the perfect setting for a psychological thriller that brings every one of these fears to life.

I would recommend Dark Mode – with some cautions and content warnings – to lovers of mysteries and thrillers, but particularly dark psychological thrillers that fill you with very real fear. This book is not for everyone, but it is an important and well-executed exploration of a set of very real and justified fears.

This review was first published on AU Review.

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