Imagine a detective with the patriotism of 24's Jack Bauer, the edginess of DCI John Luther and the unhinged dedication of Homeland's Carrie Mathison. Throw in a dark knight trying to save a Gotham-esque city from itself, and you have all the ingredients for an intriguing character. Except in Streets of Darkness by A A Dhand, there's a twist. Detective Harry Virdee is Asian, and he's caught up in a murder investigation on the troubled streets of Bradford, England.
“If we really want to talk about diversity and inclusivity, then we need someone like Harry Virdee, and it’s about time we had him,” says Dhand.
The pharmacist-turned-debut novelist is fired up – and rightly so. As Britain works out exactly how it will look after withdrawing from Europe, it feels like the whole idea of what being “British” means is also up for grabs. For Dhand, it’s simple. The son of Punjabi Hindus, who raised him in Bradford, his feelings are exactly the same as his charismatic new character.
“Harry actually isn’t confused about his identity or his moral compass at all,” he says. “For Harry, being British is about democracy, tolerance and patriotism – which is why he’ll do anything that it takes to defend his city or indeed his right to be married to his Muslim wife.”
As Harry – a non-practising Sikh – says menacingly to his first suspect: “There is a nice way and a not-so-nice way to do this.”
It's to Dhand's immense credit that he manages to juggle all these cultural issues with the crucial business of writing a page-turning thriller. Set over 10 hours in Bradford on the day of the largest Asian Mela in the UK, Streets of Darkness opens with the murder of the most powerful Asian man in the city, a swastika carved into his chest. Harry is suspended from the police, but asked to track suspect Lucas Dwight, an ex-British National Party leader recently released from prison. Naturally, the case isn't as easy or straightforward as that, and as the tension and pressure increase, the enthralling combination of people, places and social politics offers the kind of multifaceted drama that Ian Rankin fans would appreciate.
"But I'm very aware that an Asian writer hasn't really done this before," says Dhand, who still works in healthcare. "And that's what frustrates me about Asian media: it seems very comfortable with caricatures and clichés. That's not to say there isn't a part of me that doesn't enjoy [British sitcoms] Goodness Gracious Me or Citizen Khan. But they've been done again and again.
“Harry and his wife, Saima, are cool, driven and fiercely protective of each other and their city. And if I can get that across, along with the understanding that they are all about justice, then that will be really important. Asian people aren’t just about corner shops and extremists sponging off the city. It’s time we changed the narrative.”
Dhand certainly senses the opportunity that the television adaptation rights – which have already been sold – offer. We’re speaking to him mere days after his child has been born, and yet he’s knee-deep in a version of a script he hopes will be good enough to get the green light. If not, he’s happy to hand the adaptation over to someone else, as long as they understand the nuances and characters. Whatever happens, Dhand will have some part to play.
"Look, getting this on television is probably the most important thing for me right now," he says. "Not for my career, but because if it got as big a platform as Luther, it really could start lots of positive conversations. People could enjoy the fact that Harry and Saima are different and that we have something new to talk about. Something that might move this country forwards."
The business of doing just that via a thrilling crime drama is tricky, of course. But Dhand has just one example of how a tiny thread in a page-turning novel might be able to change minds.
“Take the war on terror after 9/11,” he says. “If you ask Asian people, many aren’t proud of being British because they are always asked about that time. Yes, it might have been an aspect of British policy that me, or Harry Virdee, don’t agree with. But actually, that’s not all we are about. There are plenty of other things about being British that are fabulous. So, park the war on terror: the British government did what they did, but that doesn’t define us. Do you see what I’m getting at? We have to rid ourselves of all these preconceived ideas of who we are.”
Can Detective Harry Virdee achieve just that? You certainly wouldn’t want to doubt him.
Streets of Darkness (Bantam) is out now. For more information about the author, visit www.aadhand.com