When Darla and her feckless dad, Hopper, move to Saffron Hills, Darla hopes it’ll be a new start for the both of them. But she stands no chance of fitting in with the image-obsessed in-crowd at her new school. Then one of her classmates is brutally killed when taking a photo of herself. A murder Darla herself predicted in a bloody vision. When more teens die in a similar fashion it appears that a serial killer is on the loose – the ‘Selfie Slayer’. Darla alone is convinced that the murderer might not be flesh and blood…
Stripes Publishing took on YA horror this year with their new series Red Eye, which has resulted in four very entertaining books so far this year. Tom Becker’s Dark Room is the fifth, and last for this year, and it adds to the series with a great murder mystery, which I enjoyed very much, though I did have a big problem with its villain. As a warning, I won’t be able to discuss what made the antagonist so problematic for me without giving away their identity. So I will warn you now there will be a massive spoiler and before I head into my discussion of the murderer, I will give another spoiler warning. So if you don’t want to know, you’ll know when to stop reading.
Let’s start with the positive. I really liked Darla, our main character. I thought she was interesting and believable and I especially loved how conflicted her feelings towards her dad are. Her father, Hopper, is not quite father-of-the-year material—he’s an alcoholic grifter, who’s had to cut and run to stay out of trouble more than once. Yet for all his faults – and Darla is all to aware of his faults – Darla loves her father deeply and she wants nothing more than to have a normal, stable home life with him. She oscillates between love, anger, disappointment, and hope and I was really rooting for her to get that happy ending of the white picket fence in the end.
When Darla and Hopper land in Saffron Hills, it is the gazillionth time Darla has to start over in a new place and a new school and, understandably, she’s not looking forward to making new friends. Thus the way she falls in with Sasha and Frank was a pleasant surprise to Darla, but to me too. I really liked Sasha and Frank. Sasha is wonderfully cynical, hiding her vulnerable heart under a layer of darkness, while Frank is the ultimate good guy, best friend. But they also typify the weird division in Saffron Hills. It seems as if its inhabitants are either filthy rich or those who work for the filthy rich, there doesn’t seem to be an in-between. There is a stark division between the privileged and the not-so privileged, with a side-order of the right/wrong side of the tracks, and it was interesting to see how Becker uses it and which characters did and did not realise their privilege or lack of it.
Becker’s treatment of Leroy Mills was also an interesting reflection of this. He is positioned to be a natural suspect for being the Angel Taker, yet this is highly reliant on his existence on the fringe of respectability, not on his actions, at least not at first. I loved the balance between him being scary and actually very well-meaning. Becker is adept at showing us how people are never just one thing. The Picture Perfects – Saffron Hills’ West Academy’s five King and Queen Bees – are shown to be far more than just the shallow sides they present to the world. For example, Natalie McRae isn’t just a self-obsessed beauty queen, but she’s also highly insecure and desperate to live up to her mum’s expectations.
Dark Room focuses on the darker side of social media – the obsessive instagram selfies, the mean Plain Girls stream, and the anonymous blog talking about the Angel Maker murders – yet it seems more a comment on the nature of the users than the tools themselves, since the Angel Taker doesn’t actually seem to be using them to select his victims. Some of the twists in the story were surprising and while I figured out the identity of the Angel Taker long before Darla did, I did get their motivation wrong. And that is where I have to head into spoiler territory. So if you don’t want to be spoiled on the killer’s identity, either skip till the last paragraph or click away.
Spoilers beyond this point!
While the characters are ethnically diverse, there seemed a weird lack of LBGTQA* characters, which was a shame. There is also a somewhat problematic treatment of a trans character, which left me feeling uneasy about its use as a plot driver. The killer is revealed to be the same, returned to avenge themselves, managing to stay unsuspected due to having surgically changed their appearance from male to female. And this is where the trouble starts for me. Because it feels as if it is reducing the complexity of being transgender and all of the hardship transgender people encounter in their lives to simply deciding to change your sex from one to the other for expediency’s sake. In fact, the character doesn’t feel as if they actually are transgender, they just use it for disguise purposes. Also, having the trans character being the villain feels off and could be seen as a harmful stereotype. It left me really conflicted and a little annoyed, because Dark Room isn’t a bad book; I enjoyed it very much, but I also think good representation of diverse characters is important and this didn’t feel like it was. Make of that what you will.
Dark Room was an entertaining read, which I enjoyed very much, but for its problematic reveal at the end. Still, if you enjoy a good murder mystery horror story, you should definitely give Tom Becker’s Dark Room a shot. Even if it is not perfect, it is perfectly legitimate to like a problematic thing, and I liked Dark Room, despite its flaws.
This book was provided for review by the publisher.