Saturday 16 December 2017

Uneasy alliance in city poisoned by racial tension

Thriller: Streets of Darkness, AA Dhand, Bantam Press, 320 pages, €14.99

Eerie debut: AA Dhand
Eerie debut: AA Dhand
Streets of Darkness by AA Dhand

Hilary A White

The seventh day of last month marked the 15-year anniversary of the Bradford race riots which cut a swathe through that industrial Northern England city. What began as an Anti-Nazi League demonstration against the National Front and British National Party escalated into violence when white-supremist factions clashed with gangs of youths from the city's sizeable Asian community and the police. Beatings, stabbings, looting and burning ensued.

It is eerie that AA Dhand's debut novel, a procedural-thriller that uses racial tensions in that dilapidated city as a poisonous backdrop, comes as Britain has so vocally lurched to the Right. Bradford is very dear to Dhand, who grew up there in a Punjabi-Hindu household. But he also accepts that there is a darkness to its streets, ghosts of long-dead commercial might and more recent spectres of hatred.

Harry Virdee, Dhand's detective protagonist, is a non-practising Sikh who is married to Saima, a Muslim. While awaiting the imminent arrival of their firstborn, they are grappling with the idea that the child will be ostracised by both communities, neither of whom approve of this interfaith union.

That is one part of the motor ticking inside Harry. The other is that he has been suspended from police duty over an act of violence. After the grisly and apparently racially-aggravated death of a pillar of the Asian community, Harry is asked to track down Lucas Dwight, a former BNP thug and prime suspect who is just out of jail. Dwight is being framed, however, by elements higher up the food chain who wish to use a race riot for their own advantage. An uneasy alliance between the still-suspended Harry and Lucas, a former boxer, comes into being and the two set out into what Dhand calls England's "Gotham City" to find answers.

The Batman comparisons don't end there. Like the Christopher Nolan films, there are moral battles waging in several corners as fraught philosophies soundtrack the stand-offs and altercations - brotherhood, redemption, racial bigotry, civil democracy over religious zeal, and retribution. There is a cartoon bogeyman in the form of Bashir, a sadistic Pakistani cab driver and goon who nods ever so slightly to Dan Brown's Silas. And in Harry, there is Dhand's "Dark Knight" (again, his words), rising from ignominy for the good of the whole city where others simply want to see it burn.

Dhand, who has secured TV optioning for Streets of Darkness, squeezes a lot of drama into the pages, using short chapters with knife-edge endings to maintain an air of mounting tension and converging subplots. The final sentences line up the next adventure for Harry Virdee (that instalment is with Dhand's publishers as we speak, apparently), meaning that his goal of using the character as a platform to explore British-Asian identity politics will be an evolving one.

While Dhand is prone to some glib metaphors and ever so slightly cheesy one-liners - "…tonight, hell had a new home", "…like a hawk stalking its prey", "Bashir's hand on his leg was like a cobra's head about to strike" - the narrative course is generally as murky, fleet-footed and tightly wound as such thrillers demand.

This full-time pharmacist has thus made an entrance that is already being noticed, primarily because UK noir is not exactly awash with leads of an ethnic hue. Harry Virdee and the world he inhabits stand out as unexplored territory in the genre but it is not all that Dhand has to offer. There are better Virdee novels to come, you can be sure, but this is still a very worthwhile baptism of fire.

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