Karen Pollock reviews the latest book by Dr Brooke Magnanti, an exciting crime thriller set in Newcastle and Scotland.
What is an LGBTQ+ book? It sounds simple, but the more I think about it, the less obvious it seems. Academic books are perhaps easy to categorise, in this sphere LGBTQ+ is the subject, usually openly and explicitly announced. There is space for debate about ghettoisation, about why Queer studies needs to be separate, but at least we know from the first moment the way the book’s gaze is orientated. With fiction it is much harder, what makes a novel an LGBTQ+ novel? Is it the plot, the protagonist, the intent of the author?
I was prompted to wonder about this last year when I picked up a copy of The Turning Tide by Dr Brooke Magnanti. For most she is probably familiar as the author of Diaries of a Call Girl, under the nom de plume Belle de Jour. I came to her by a different route. As someone whose first degree looked at the scientific method, I was troubled by various statistics thrown around about sex, sexual exploitation and sex work, which drew me to The Sex Myth. It is a much disregarded academic work, which many could do to read in this era of post truth politics. It challenges false claims made about sex, pornography and sex work. The Turning Tide is very different, a crime thriller which had at its center a bisexual woman. It was, I realised as I read, one of the better depictions of bisexuality in popular fiction I had come across. This was not bisexuality as a flaw, or a plot device, or the all too common LGBTQ+ identity being a replacement for character trope. Instead it was a woman who happened to be bisexual, not incidentally, but in a way which felt real, and very different from the usual heterosexual gaze.
I therefore awaited the arrival of the second novel You Don’t Know Me with interest. I have to confess that it was not just with the hope of good, rounded LGBTQ+ characters. I am a fan of both police procedurals and crime thrillers. This perhaps is not surprising for a therapist. Both look at motivations, at the drives which make people tick, and often try to explain those behaviours considered aberrant by society. It has to be said that both Maganati’s novels raise the questions of categorisation again. They resemble the thrillers of Kathy Reiches’ in the realism, and indeed mundanity, of the forensic descriptions. No surprise since Dr Magnanti also worked as a forensic scientist. The centering on a believable female lead also has echoes of Karin Slaughters’ Sara Linton. However, most crime thrillers focus on the police and the process of investigation. It is striking that in both The Turning Tide and You Don’t Know Me, the police are mere ciphers and some of the few characters who are not fleshed out. It is tempting to speculate that the attitudes of Sandra, an experienced Geordie Dominatrix in You Don’t Know Me, are those of Brookes. The police are not to be trusted, a group, not made up of the individuals of the usual crime thriller, complete with quirks and foibles, but instead a faceless mass to be feared and avoided at all costs.
what makes a novel an LGBTQ+ novel? Is it the plot, the protagonist, the intent of the author?
On the surface You Dont Know Me is the story of a search by an abused woman for an old friend, who she believes to have become a sex worker. It is material which could have been handled exploitatively, or with the usual dehumanisation of those on the margins of our society. I was curious, given her own history, how Maganati handled the topic of sex work. It was only afterwards that I realised how unsensationally, and unusually it had been done. Just as her characters are not LGBTQ+ simply for the sake of it, so we do not see a sex worker but a woman who, among many things, has sold sex. In the same way we are taken into the inner world of a victim of domestic abuse without feeling like voyeurs. You Don’t Know Me is a book about women; a book where men are perhaps relegated to the role women usually take, assistants and promoters of the plot. It doesn’t just pass the Bechdell test – but smashes it apart. Is this the result of reading so many crime novels where the dead sex worker is nothing more than a plot device on which men’s actions hang?
Set, as the book is, in Newcastle Upon Tyne it could have again easily wandered into cliche. However, it is clear that (just as Magnanti knew the Scottish Islands of the first book) she is writing about a city she knows. This is not the created Newcastle of Geordie Shore, but the middle class university town where students party behind the walls of Victorian villas. The partying prompts a question which seems bigger than the book, when one of the characters wonders what the difference is between random sex with strangers at a party, and random sex with strangers for money?
The police are not to be trusted, a group, not made up of the individuals of the usual crime thriller, complete with quirks and foibles, but instead a faceless mass to be feared and avoided at all costs.
This prompted me to wonder who exactly is the question of the title aimed at? The abusive partner who thinks he has his victim firmly under his control? The lesbian forensic scientist? The partying, enigmatic bisexual Miri? Or Brooke herself, who clearly knows the situations she writes about, the women she writes about, even the hilarious parody of Milo Yanniopalis she includes as light relief. (The Newsnight scene just dripped with sarcasm and an insiders view). This is not an autobiography, or even a confessional in the same way the Call Girl books are. It does make me wonder about how well we know any writer, about the process involved in putting your work out there, as a representation of yourself. People who read what you have written may claim to know you, but, like a room with many mirrors, are they seeing you, or the reflection of a reflection?
It is common in reviews to say whether you recommend a book or not. I shall stick to that convention, even whilst I feel its something people should decide for themselves. I most certainly would recommend You Don’t Know Me. It is a great page turner of a book, which those who like police procedurals will enjoy. It also has the kind of female and LGBTQ+ characters all too rarely found in popular fiction, and has ideas and themes which provoke thought after you have finished the last page.
You can pre-order a copy of You Dont Know Me here.
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