Dr Brooke Magnanti: Why I gave up turning tricks for a life of crime
Working as a high-class call girl helped fund her forensic science studies - and kick off a writing career. But, as Dr Brooke Magnanti tells Hannah Stephenson, prostitution is bound to creep into her crime novels at some point
Brooke Magnanti has had a varied career, to put it mildly. She first became famous anonymously as blogger Belle de Jour, writing of her adventures as a high-class call girl, which spawned two bestselling books and the TV series Secret Diary Of A Call Girl starring Billie Piper.
But she's long since left that world behind, to become a full-time writer living in the Scottish highlands with her husband, who works for the fire service. And now she's penned her debut novel, a thriller partly inspired by her other former career, as a forensic scientist who specialised in decomposed bodies (she has 153 autopsies under her belt).
"Within a few weeks of taking up my doctoral research at the Medico-Legal Centre in Sheffield, I had already heard more about heroin overdoses, cyanide suicides and al fresco hangings than a person really ought to," American-born Magnanti reveals.
"I do miss it. There's a sense of community when you're working in the mortuary. You talk about cases that you've worked on like you would talk about family holidays. I'm still friends with some of the people I worked with."
These days, she'd rather talk about her scientific and writing career than her 14-month stint as a high-class call girl more than a decade ago, which she pursued to pay her student rent.
Belle de Jour detailed her work as a £300-an-hour escort with such amusing candour in her award-winning blog, that Clive James described her as "the thinking man's dream girl".
For six years, her identity was a closely guarded literary secret, until November 2009 when she revealed she was a scientific researcher named Brooke Magnanti, who'd come to the UK to study forensic science.
Her only regret, she told Billie Piper in a rare interview after the TV series became a hit, was not telling her friends sooner, as they turned out to be very supportive. She gave the sex work up because she simply didn't need the money any more - and by that time was concentrating on writing the first Belle de Jour book, alongside her scientific career.
Today, talk focuses on dead bodies, murders and forensic investigations, to promote her debut novel The Turning Tide, which begins when a decomposed body is found in the shallow waters of a Hebridean island.
The main character, Erykah Macdonald, is an unhappy wife with a lesbian lover who's just about to leave her husband when he wins the lottery. The plot features murky political shenanigans, a graphic autopsy scene and a particularly realistic look at what it's like to be caught in the media spotlight.
Magnanti, 40, who was born and raised in Florida, says part of her inspiration to go into forensic science was spawned by the TV show Quincy, which she watched as a child.
"I know it sounds a cliche, I loved Quincy. Jack Klugman was so good. Some people watch detective shows, some people watch Columbo, but for me it was all about Quincy."
And like some of the show's fictional students, she also fainted witnessing her first post-mortem.
"I'd seen dead bodies before but I'd always seen them as cadavers, which are generally specimens preserved for dissections in medical schools. So it always looks very different because a lot of the liquid's been drained off and the tissues are a different colour.
"When you see somebody who's just died for the first time and they are being cut open, it was quite a shock. I felt so embarrassed, because I woke up on the floor and the pathologist was holding my wellies in the air and everyone was laughing at me."
During her forensic science student days, she saw a number of victims who'd suffered violent deaths, but says during her 14 months as a call girl, she didn't really come across the violent side of the vice industry.
"I didn't encounter much crime when I was a sex worker. I was on the more privileged end of things [she paid a third of her earnings to an agency]. People who are more vulnerable, or who are out on the streets, encounter a lot more casual violence and crime.
"But in my last book The Sex Myth [in which she uses scientific research to explore the scandals, moral outrage and public policy concerning sex], I wrote about something that actually happened when I was working in the mortuary. There had been the violent murder of a sex worker in Sheffield, which has still never been solved.
"At the time I was a student there, not yet a sex worker, living in student accommodation in an area of the city that had once been well-known as a red-light district.
"The city began a crackdown on kerb-crawling and street prostitution that drove sex workers out from the well-trafficked, well-lit and policed city centre to the industrial fringes of the city. It was in this time that the woman was attacked.
"She was identified because she was dying when police got to her; she'd been stabbed 19 times and she was even able to give a description of her attacker before she died, but the person who killed her has never been found.
"The more I learned, the more the effects of 'zero tolerance' policing seemed partly responsible for her untimely death.
"I did meet girls who had been attacked," she continues. "There was someone I was close to at the time who had been attacked with a hammer. Her attacker was never caught."
She doesn't feel that the Belle de Jour blog or its TV spin-off glamorised prostitution.
"I reported my experience of it, which was relatively safe, relatively sane, and I got out of it what I wanted to get out of it.
"But I'm not typical in the way I approach sex, work or relationships and I would encourage people to think very deeply about whether they could handle it before doing it," she has said.
There are more crime novels on the cards - and she hasn't ruled out vice weaving its way in to a plot somewhere.
"I'm writing the next one now. The Belle de Jour connection will come into my fiction at some point. When you talk about anything to do with crime, it's inevitable that at some point you are going to come across the vice world."
The Turning Tide by Brooke Magnanti, Orion, £12.99