I also attended the Zoom launch of her memoir, How to Be Australian, in June 2020 and was at the live Sydney launch and book signing for Dark Mode in March 2023. And I was honoured to be named among the friends who have supported Ashley in "myriad ways" in the book's Acknowledgements.
Secondly, I am not a big reader of crime fiction. But I know it's a popular genre, as the success of Australian noir proves, and after binge-reading Dark Mode, I can see why.
A Dead Body
As all good crime thrillers should, Dark Mode opens with a dead body. Reagan is jogging through the early, empty Sunday morning streets of Sydney's Inner West when she finds a "naked, pale-skinned torso".
A mannequin. It had to be. Human bodies didn't come apart like that.
But close inspection confirms it is a young woman's body, severed in two and mutilated. And that she bears a striking resemblance to Reagan.
Reagan knows she should call the police. But as a teenage schoolgirl, she had been the victim of a stalker. And instead of providing support, Reagan's family and the police blamed her for contacting the stalker on an online chat room.
Traumatised by the experience, Reagan has a minimal internet and email presence for her business, the Voodoo Lily garden centre, no social media accounts, and doesn't own a smartphone, fearing the stalker will somehow find her again. And she distrusts the police, so she doesn't report the murder.
Someone else would see the body.
But more mutilated young women are found on Sydney's streets. And again, they look like Reagan. Has her stalker returned? Is he looking for Reagan? Can her friend, Min-lee, a true crime writer with police contacts, help solve the murders and protect her? And if not, who can Reagan trust?
LOVE WRITING REVIEWS?
Share and showcase your reviews and other writing — fiction and nonfiction — as a Guest Writer on Tall And True.
At the Sydney launch and in her Author's Note for Dark Mode, Ashley confessed to being a "lifelong thriller fan" and a lover of True Crime books and podcasts.
Ashley cited Laura Bates' best-seller, Men Who Hate Women, for inspiring her exploration of the dark web world of misogynists who "plan and commit acts of terrorism against women and society".
And Los Angeles homicide detective Steve Hodel's investigation into his father's possible involvement in the gruesome 1947 murder of Elizabeth Short, known posthumously as the Black Dahlia, whose mutilation is copy-catted by the Dark Mode murderer.
I winced several times at Ashley's graphic descriptions of crime scenes in Dark Mode and the misogynistic transcripts from dark web chat rooms. And I admired Ashley's courage in going down dark rabbit holes as part of her research for the book.
But though I'm not a big reader of crime fiction and am squeamish, Dark Mode was a page-turner. And I'd often stay up past midnight to read "one more chapter" before turning off my bedside lamp.
Ashley has a way with words, particularly in describing Reagan's subconscious reaction to her rising anxiety: digging her nails into her palms, pulling her arms tightly around herself, and hugging her knees. And Ashley hooked me deeper into Reagan's fear of the stalker with every unexpected twist and turn.
The 2020 Banjo Prize-winning author Dinuka McKenzie, who was also at the Sydney launch, says in her Praise for Dark Mode:
"Ashley plunges the reader into the darkest corners of the internet and it could not be more terrifying! A superb thriller that will keep you riveted to the page and dial up your tech anxieties to eleven."
And who could argue with the best-selling author of the crime novels, The Torrent and Taken? Not this reviewer.
So do yourself a favour, and read Dark Mode, even if you're not a crime fiction fan. You might wince at some grisly passages, but you won't stop turning the pages!
© 2023 Robert Fairhead
N.B. You might like to read another Tall And True review from October 2022, The Sirens Sing by Kristel Thornell.
Robert is a writer and editor at Tall And True and blogs on his eponymous website, RobertFairhead.com. He also writes and narrates episodes for the Tall And True Short Reads storytelling podcast, featuring his short stories, blog posts and other writing from Tall And True.
Robert's book reviews and other writing have appeared in print and online media. In 2020, he published his début collection of short stories, Both Sides of the Story. In 2021, Robert published his first twelve short stories for the Furious Fiction writing competition, Twelve Furious Months, and in 2022, his second collection of Furious Fictions, Twelve More Furious Months. And in 2023, he published an anthology of his microfiction, Tall And True Microfiction.
Besides writing, Robert's favourite pastimes include reading, watching Aussie Rules football with his son and walking his dog.
He has also enjoyed a one-night stand as a stand-up comic.