Born: January 2, 1962;

Died: July 27, 2021.

CLARE Dunkel, who has died of motor neurone disease aged 59, appeared to live two contrasting lives, adopting different personas in different eras.

The publicity-shy author of seven best-selling novels about gory crimes investigated by Detective Inspector Jack Caffrey, which she wrote under the pseudonym Mo Hayder, was the same person who, as Candy Davis, began her working life as a glamour model, rebelling against her conservative, academically orientated upbringing and enjoying a brief career in acting.

For the last two series of the TV sitcom Are You Being Served? (1983-85) she took the role of Miss Belfridge, personal secretary to the Grace Brothers department store boss Mr Rumbold (played by Nicholas Smith).

She said she took topless pictures from her modelling days along to the audition. “I didn’t have any others,” she told Richard Webber, author of a 1998 book on the BBC comedy programme. “Maybe that’s what got me the job,” she added.

Of being hired to exude sex appeal in the department store comedy, she said: “I was like that anyway – the role was very much me.”

The sitcom’s writers, David Croft and Jeremy Lloyd, acknowledged she was chosen for her physical attributes, although they also noticed her intellect. Smith himself said: “She was perfectly capable of feeding me lines and everything worked out well.”

But while Dunkel enjoyed the fame she soon tired of acting and, after a period working as a club hostess in Tokyo, where a colleague was raped, and making animations while gaining an MA in film in Washington DC, she reinvented herself as Mo Hayder, with a mission to document men’s violence towards women.

In Birdman (1999), her first novel, Caffrey investigates a serial killer who rips out the hearts of his five mutilated female victims – sex workers and strippers – and stitches live finches into their chests. Dunkel’s intensive research included studying case histories, visiting Metropolitan Police murder incident rooms, and watching forensic pathologists at work.

She was also forensic herself in descriptions of the effects on the body of violent killings. “I have this kind of compulsive need to wriggle my toes in life’s gutters,” she said.

An agent negotiated a £200,000, two-book deal and Birdman was followed by The Treatment (2001), which was about a paedophile. Then came Ritual (2008) about a murderous African cult; Skin (2009), which combined more African rituals with a destructive water creature; Gone (2010, winner of an Edgar Award), about a car-jacker targeting children; Poppet (2013), the story of a dangerous mental patient on the loose; and Wolf (2014), featuring a family unable to put behind them the murder of two teenage lovers.

Thanks to these, Dunkel was dubbed the “connoisseur of corpses” and, along with three standalone books – Tokyo (2004), titled The Devil of Nanking in the US; Pig Island (2006); and Hanging Hill (2011) – their sales reached 6.5 million copies worldwide.

The Scottish author Christopher Brookmyre once said Tokyo was “my most breathlessly devoured read of the year” and “a beguiling and horrific mystery entwining dark deeds in its eponymous modern city with Japan’s most guilty past secret: the rape of Nanking”.

In a rare interview, Dunkel dropped hints about the person behind the author. “Basically – whisper it – I’m an Essex girl,” she told the Telegraph in 2006. “I’m a shopper and a slapper. I’m terrible.”

She was born Clare Damaris Bastin in Epping in 1962 to Susan (nee Jacobsen), an English teacher, and John Bastin, an astrophysicist, and said she tried to kill her younger brother shortly after he was born by throwing him down a staircase.

At 14, she was arrested for being involved in a fairground fight and, continuing this streak of rebellion, left Loughton County High School for Girls at 15, a year early, shortly after her parents had separated.

She headed for London, moved in with a musician boyfriend, and was soon working behind a bar and as a stripper. “I wanted to throw my innocence out of the window,” she said. Her glamour model days as Candy Davis included posing in The Sun and winning the Miss Nude America contest in 1982.

This led to television appearances as a stripper in a 1982 episode of Minder, joining the Hill’s Angels dancers for a holiday sketch in The Benny Hill Show (1983), and bit parts in The Comic Strip Presents … Five Go Mad on Mescalin (1983) and Bottle Boys (1984). She also danced in the pop group ABC’s video for their Poison Arrow single (1982).

Between 1983 and 1986, bolstered by her run in Are You Being Served?, she regularly performed in The Two Ronnies, predictably cast in roles such as “the colonel’s niece” and Miss Exotica Stormtrooper, clad in leather.

While in Japan, she taught English alongside her club job. “After my friend was raped, I went through a phase where I kept seeing people die,” she told The Independent in 2011. “I was sitting in a coffee bar when someone at the next table died of a heart attack. A week later, I saw a workman fall to his death from a high building. Then I saw a young boy die of snakebite.”

This all had a creative effect on her while studying at the American University, Washington, where her Claymation films included animals pulling each other’s heads off.

In 1990, she changed her name by deed poll to Beatrice Clare Dunkel.

Her first marriage in 1985, to actor Gary Olsen, ended in divorce in 1990. She is survived by her second husband, Bob Randall, a former police diver whom she married in January following her diagnosis with motor neurone disease last December, and her daughter, Lotte Genevieve, born in 2001 from a relationship with Keith Quinn.