Can this novel do for Bradford what The Wire did for Baltimore?

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Bradford author A A Dhand’s explosive debut crime thriller explores the dark side of the city. Yvette Huddleston reports.

There’s a new detective hero about to burst on to the crime thriller scene – and his patch is the dark heart of Bradford.

A A Dhand’s debut novel Streets of Darkness, published later this month, is a sombre, gritty race through the unsettling underbelly of the city. The television rights were snapped up pretty quickly and comparisons have already been made with the popular BBC drama Luther and HBO’s phenomenally successful series The Wire.

The central character is DI Hardeep ‘Harry’ Virdee, a complex, charismatic and flawed figure. As the book opens he has been suspended from duty, following a violent incident. The reasons behind this outburst, which left a man badly injured, gradually become clear but it gives him an edge of unpredictability which feeds in to the narrative’s carefully calibrated tension.

The flipside to Virdee’s maverick nature is that he is completely focussed and very good at his job, which is why, despite his suspension, his boss enlists his help in investigating the gruesome murder of prominent Bradford businessman Shakeel Ahmed, a well-known, respected figure in the city and newly elected MP.

The killing appears to be racially motivated and Virdee’s task is to find the prime suspect in the case – former BNP leader Lucas Dwight just released from prison after 14 years – before the city descends into anarchy and a possible repetition of the riots of 2001.

Dhand, who works as a pharmacist by day, writing in his spare time, was raised in Bradford. His parents ran a corner shop and it was from that vantage point that he observed his home city throughout his childhood and teenage years. He has said that it is Bradford’s history, diversity and darkness that inspired the novel.

“Bradford gets a lot of negative press,” he says. “Every city has a good and a bad side just like every human being has a good and a bad side.” Dhand explores this notion in his novel in the most compelling – and unflinching – way. As the tagline on the book cover says ‘nothing in this city is black and white’. The narrative, which moves along at a tremendous pace, constantly subverts preconceptions – cultural, religious, social, regional – and there are surprises (usually nasty ones) and twists lurking around every dark corner.

“I wanted to write something that’s thrilling, with high drama – and that tells a different story about Bradford,” says Dhand. “First and foremost I wanted to create a character that we haven’t seen before – a British Asian detective who cares passionately about his country and his city. I knew exactly how I wanted him to be. Harry would describe himself as British English, so would I – to me that’s about acceptance, tolerance and patriotism. It’s a positive thing. There is nothing clichéd about Harry. If he has to choose between tradition and his own values, there is no contest. He puts truth and justice first.”

The book is a gripping, rollercoaster ride of a read, the action tough and uncompromising. It’s all pretty hard-hitting stuff and certainly not for the faint-hearted but right at centre of the novel is a tender and very moving love story. Harry is a secular Sikh, his wife Saima, an A&E nurse, is an observant Muslim and their decision to marry outside their religion has caused an irreconcilable rift with their respective families. Their situation is made all the more poignant by the fact that they are expecting their first child.

“That difficulty has made their relationship stronger because their loyalty is to each other,” says Dhand. “I knew I wanted a powerful love story – I want the reader to go on that journey with them and to be rooting for them. And Saima is a formidable woman – I wanted her to be as focussed as Harry. She, like Harry, is prepared to put everything on the line for what is right. Her religion is important to her but it is not what defines her.”

Being an author has been a long-held ambition for Dhand. Inspired by Stephen King’s novel Christine, he began writing at the age of 12 – “elaborately imaginative stories” he says, laughing.

Combining a busy job with his drive to write is not easy, but he manages his time carefully. “I don’t write every day, I’m a binge writer,” he says. “And I write at night – starting at 11pm until 2am. When the story is flowing I will go all night sometimes. And I spend time in Bradford late at night walking through the streets to get the feel and look of it and getting ideas. I don’t write notes or anything – I’m so worried I’ll forget something, I just get it down. I wrote Streets of Darkness in a month.”

In collaboration with production company FilmWave, Dhand is currently working on the screenplay for the pilot episode of the TV series and he has already written and delivered the second Harry Virdee novel, Girl Zero.

Through Virdee, Dhand brings both a fresh perspective on Bradford and a distinctive new voice into the crime thriller genre.

“In the Asian community there are some really powerful stories that are very different from what we are seeing,” he says. “So I hope I might inspire other writers to tell those stories. Of course we shouldn’t forget or ignore our heritage but we shouldn’t be defined by it. What should define us is the here and now. Let’s work on what connects us, not what separates us.”

Streets of Darkness is published in hardback by Bantum Press on June 16. The book launch is at Waterstones, Bradford on June 17, 6.30pm.