Brooke Magnanti: How Belle De Jour Came to Write a Crime Novel

Brooke Magnanti: How Belle De Jour Came to Write a Crime Novel

Let me explain. When my writing first got noticed as the result of an anonymous blog 15 years ago, it came as a complete surprise to me. I’d only started writing because the subject matter – namely, my work as a London escort while I searched for other jobs – was not something I’d ordinarily share with family and friends. Writing on the Web was a place I could blow off steam, share gossip, and not let the stigma of sex work intrude on my life.

Eventually people got to know me “as Belle” through the blog, books, and then a TV series. It felt as if that thin slice of my life was overtaking everything else. Until my identity was revealed in 2009, even my publisher hadn’t known I was a forensic scientist with a PhD in human identification. The science career that was always the real focus of my life’s work was firmly in the back seat. I can’t be ungrateful about the success of Belle, but I can say that like so many women’s stories, there’s a lot more to me than that.

As a reader I’ve always enjoyed a healthy mix of thrillers alongside other literature – the joke in my family was that I was really raised by Stephen King! Horror and mysteries I love.

Historical crime, true crime, you name it, you’ll find it on my shelves. The first stories I tried to write as a kid were always about unexplained hauntings, dark secrets, and people in danger. In the 7th grade, a short story I wrote for a school competition was held back by one of the teachers for being “too grown up” (it was about a serial killer taking out the passengers on a cruise ship one by one). My drawer is full of unpublishable jottings about photographs that speak to people and settlers slowly starving to death on the surface of Mars. A light-hearted soul I have never been.

So quite by accident and a few strange twists of fate many years later, I found myself a published writer, with a deep background in forensic science, wondering what on earth I was going to write next. And then I thought about a case that once came through the doors at Sheffield’s Medico-Legal Centre, where I did my doctoral research. It was an unidentified body in a bag, decomposed, the neck slashed so deeply the head was almost coming off. That body in that bag eventually, in my imagination, found its way to the coast of West Scotland where I live now. And so a story was born.

But I didn’t just want to write about bodies, no matter how fascinating the inside of a mortuary can be. I also wanted to write about relationships. How love dies, and what happens to people scarred by choices they made early on. Choices that may not be the sum total of who they are, but that have, in the public mind, come to define them.

I wanted to write a woman my own age, who has had her fair share of misunderstandings and regrets, but who never had been brave enough to tell her own story. Someone who unlike me, never had the pressure release outlet that blogging was for me. What would that kind of person be like? Probably someone who would go with the flow, afraid to upset the delicate balance of a life unfulfilled.

Until the day when that corpse washes up on a beach in Raasay, and she is forced to finally take the wheel in her own destiny. The story starts with a body in a bag. But where it ends up is all about the living.