The Tattoo Thief: guest post by Alison Belsham

How my writing became suffused with the blackest of inks

I’d always wanted a tattoo. I’d always been a writer. But when these two passions became inexorably entwined, I suddenly found myself with a hit thriller on my hands!

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How did it happen?

In 2015, I went to Berlin to get a tattoo. Eleven hours of tattooing over two days – let’s say it was an experience! But I was thrilled. So thrilled that on the first night, after a six-hour session, I couldn’t sleep for the excitement of it. I lay tossing and turning, staining the crisp white hotel sheets with fresh black tattoo ink, my mind buzzing. Now I’ve got my tattoo, I thought to myself. No one can take it away. But then my writer brain decided to get involved in the conversation. But what if they did?

And – bang! – I knew I had a premise. What if someone stole people’s tattoos and collected them like art? That someone became the Tattoo Thief, a dastardly serial killer who cuts the tattoos off his victims’ bodies. Of course, it’s a hell of a job to turn one sentence into a complete novel, but I started working on a plot that pitted my sick killer up against a young and idealistic DI who spent more time in church than staring at the bottom of a whisky bottle. Over the next few months, I fleshed out the storyline to novel proportions.

Did the idea have legs?

This was the big question, so in search of answers, I entered Bloody Scotland’s Pitch Perfect competition. It involved flying up to the crime-writing festival in Stirling and giving a three-minute pitch in front of a panel of editors and agents, who would then give me feedback. So this was my cunning plan: I had an idea, I would pitch it for feedback which would then tell me whether it was going to be worth my while to actually write the book. What I hadn’t bargained on was winning the competition.

‘How much of the book have you written?’ asked one of the panel, hopefully.

Dear reader, I lied. It had become apparent in the green room before the event that all of the other seven entrants had complete manuscripts, ready to send out as soon as requested. I hadn’t written a word. Of course, I lied!

‘I’ve written a thousand words,’ I proclaimed, confident that I could bang out the first thousand words overnight if anyone demanded proof.

‘Could it be the first of a series?’ said another of the panellists.

By now I was on a roll. ‘It’s the first of a trilogy,’ I said. Note to self – that’s three books that need writing now.

Fast forward four years, an agent, a book deal and a publisher. Last month, The Embalmer was published. It’s the third book in The Tattoo Thief trilogy – with Her Last Breath the second one. All three are set in Brighton, in the tattooing world, all three feature DI Francis Sullivan pitting his wits against a gruesome serial killer, and all three include Marni Mullins, a feisty but damaged tattoo artist who helps Francis solve the first murder.

In the first book, the killer steals tattoos, so I needed to come up with something different for book two – a killer who tattoos his victims using poison ink. And in the third? Yes, there are still tattoos, but my third serial killer goes a step further and also mummifies his victims in the manner of the ancient Egyptians.

So, one small thought in the middle of the night in a Berlin hotel room, has taken me on a five-year journey that has quite literally changed my life, in the best possible way. Am I still writing about tattoos? No, not at the moment. I’ve just started working on a new series, and the clue’s in the title – the first book will be called The Burn. Have I had anymore tattoos, since that fateful night? So far, it’s just the one – but never say never…

To find out more about Alison, and to see her incredibly cool ink, visit her website:

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