A.A. Dhand: “Asians on the screen that we see are often clichéd or caricatured”
BY Natalie Cooper
With the outstanding popularity of shows such as ‘Luther’ and ‘Happy Valley’, passion for British crime and thriller stories is higher than ever in the UK, a sentiment which author A.A. Dhand can definitely attest to. His debut novel ‘Streets of Darkness’ was picked up by FilmWave for development into a television series before the book even went on sale to the general public, such was the positive response it generated.
The story is a dark and intriguing one – Detective Hardeep ‘Harry’ Virdee begins the novel suspended from the police force in Bradford, and tied up in a case full of murder, deceit and unexpected twists and turns. With heavy themes of race, religion, power and corruption running throughout the brutal thriller, this is a book which sets out to challenge preconceptions in a major way. The author, born and raised in Bradford himself, is keen to write characters which tear down stereotypes and share a whole new kind of story with a new audience.
We caught up with A. A. Dhand to find out more about his characters, his captivating choice of northern setting, and what lies in store for ‘Streets of Darkness’ next.
You decided to set ‘Streets of Darkness’ in Bradford, which isn’t the most typical of settings for a story which has already drawn comparisons to shows such as Luther and The Wire. What made you choose to set your debut book here?
I mean firstly it’s the city that I live in! You do tend to write about what you know. But Bradford also has a long history that I think not a lot of people realise. You know up until just a couple of years ago Bradford was a real powerhouse, and then it had this economic collapse when the wool industry declined, which has left a lot of atmospheric buildings around the city which are now abandoned, and there’s a lot of opportunity to create atmosphere there.
When you write a crime thriller you tend to pick the edgiest parts of a city, the centre where you have all these relics of mills and you know, areas like Manningham which haven’t had a lot of money spent on them and have a history of sort of falling into decline. If I’d set the novel in Bronte county where the grass is green and the skies are blue, it wouldn’t have the edginess that it has.
So that was my reason for setting it in Bradford. There’s a lot of opportunity to have a really good thriller set in Bradford, and use the city’s history and use some of those amazing buildings to create the right energy. It’s definitely been lacking, and I’m trying to get people engaged again. In particular the Asian community in reading crime thrillers, I think historically it’s not an area in which they’ve been written about or read about, so I’d love to be able to say that we’re trying to engage a new readership.
In the opening chapter, the protagonist Detective Harry Virdee describes the city of Bradford as ‘a relic, its glory days past, suffocated by mass unemployment caused by the collapse of the textile industries’. Do you think this is a pretty typical view of Bradford?
I think it is a typical view of Bradford but it’s also backed by facts. I mean industries; the wool industry did collapse and cause mass unemployment, and a lot of the Asian community worked in those mills. In the book a lot of those then go and open convenience stores, or drive taxis, or try to find employment in other industries. The heartbeat of Bradford was in the wool industry, and when you remove the heartbeat from somebody, you’re looking at decay. So I think it’s a reasonable picture of the history of Bradford.
And again, because it’s an edgy crime thriller, you tend to pick the areas which have maximum impact, which is in the city centre. If you look at the statistics in Bradford the centre, and just around the centre, are the areas of highest crime. In terms of a relic, it has that relic feel, from an industrial point of view – you have the most amazing woollen mills which have fallen into abandonment over fifty years, but they’re still there.
Where did the character of Detective Hardeep ‘Harry’ Virdee come from – is he based on anybody?
He’s not based on anybody specifically, but I was trying to create a character that we haven’t seen before. Asians on the screen that we see are often clichéd or caricatured, you know how many times have we watched the typical Asian shop-keeper? And even now, looking at media on TV, the way Asians are portrayed is not particularly original. You know if we can have a white James Bond and a Black Luther, it’s about time that we had an Asian Detective Harry Virdee.
The thing that’s different about Harry is he never puts culture and tradition ahead of patriotism and loyalty to his city. He’s basically subverting every cliché that we’ve ever seen, and subverting every caricature to create a really thrilling, edge of your seat character. We’re merging the Jack Bauer of ‘24’ with more edginess and charisma, and I think we’ve never seen anything like it before.
The book features a strong marriage at its centre, between a secular Sikh man and a practicing Muslim woman. What made you choose to portray the couple in this manner, and how much does race and religion play a role in the story overall?
At the heart of the novel is really the emotionally engaging love story between Harry and Saima, and again, we read in literature about inter-faith marriages and non-fiction stories which are really heartfelt, and often leave us kind of depressed afterwards. I wanted to take a familiar scenario and portray it in an extremely unfamiliar way. Harry is a secular Sikh while Saima is a practicing Muslim, and they use the dishonour they’ve experienced to drive them to be successful, which is a different portrayal to the other stories I’ve seen or read about. And it was important to put them at the heart of the story, because Bradford does have a large Asian population and these stories are quite common, but they never really get much media time.
You know, I want to read about Harry and Saima and root for them, these characters who take the good things about being Asian and the great things about being British – they have democracy, and tolerance, and patriotism, and towards each other importantly. They’re not self-deprecating characters – they make their love story more compelling and stronger. It’s about trying to create a new story, new voices, new characters, because what I want to do is engage people to say ‘I’ve never read a book like this before.’ I want people to look at Harry as the hero, but also I want them to see Saima as a hero as well.
What do you attribute to the amazingly positive response that the book has enjoyed so far, ahead of its general release?
I think it’s probably down to three things. Firstly, it’s a story which hasn’t been done before, you know in terms of crime thrillers there a lot of crime thrillers, but this is a completely new kind of story line. I’m taking them into a world they don’t know about, and doing it in a new way. Secondly it’s pace – it’s a very ‘pacy’ story, there are three story lines running simultaneously, which all descend at the end to tie everything up, so you never really know what’s going on, it’s the ultimate guessing game. And thirdly it’s got a hell of a twist at the end! Which is just satisfying when you read it; I think it’s quite rare to have a twist where nobody really guesses it.
Overall it’s an unusual story delivered at the right pace, which ticks a lot of boxes I guess. Harry Virdee is a character who the public have taken to and the media have taken to because we’ve just not seen anything like him before, and it is about time that we had him.
Congratulations on having ‘Streets of Darkness’ picked up to be turned into a TV show – how did that come about, and how involved are you in its development?
My agent sent it out to the TV companies and basically we had a situation where it was really competitive and three or four companies were all vying for the rights. This meant that I was able to sit down with them and FilmWave just felt like the best fit. They came up to Bradford, and they were just really passionate about it. I said that I’d like to have a go at writing the screenplay, so whilst I’m not the main writer for the show, I’m having a go which is nice of them to give me the opportunity to do that.
If we do get it further into development, which I’m fairly confident about, I’ll hopefully be in an executive producer role on the show, once we get to that stage. But we are in very early stages at the moment! I’m thrilled to be involved in it.
‘Streets of Darkness’ is available to buy now.
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