AA Dhand sits at a table in the balcony cafe at Bradford’s magnificent old Wool Exchange and points to the spot where his latest victim was found.
She was hanged in a particularly grisly fashion from a ledge below the hammer-beam roof, suspended between two grand granite pillars.
Her name was Usma and she met her tragic fate at the start of City of Sinners, the Bradford crime author’s latest novel.
“That idea came to me when I was doing the Girl Zero book launch,” Amit Dhand says, referring to his 2017 thriller. It was launched in the same building, which now houses surely the most beautiful branch of Waterstones in the country.
Dhand continues: “I was being interviewed [at the launch] and mid-question I looked up to the ceiling and thought, it would be really bizarre if there was a dead body hanging from that ceiling. Ideas just ping into your mind.
“I’d finished the interview and she was still just hanging there from the ceiling. I come here quite a lot, and every time I came back she was still there, saying, ‘How did I get here? Who put me here? Why?'”
Dhand’s fictional detective Hardeep Virdee – known as Harry – had to answer those questions. The title City of Sinners – the third Harry Virdee book – offers a fair idea of how the Yorkshire city is portrayed.
The ornate Wool Exchange, built in 1867, is a symbol of the prosperity Bradford enjoyed as the global centre of the wool trade in the 19th and early 20th Centuries.
The city’s subsequent decline provides the grit that is plentiful in Dhand’s books. In his 2016 debut Streets of Darkness, Bradford is described as “the cesspit of Yorkshire”.
“I do regret that line,” the author admits, claiming that it was actually his editor’s idea. “I didn’t know what a cesspit was until she put that in there.”
But at the time he was writing, he says was angry at how the city had been treated, not least after a substantial part of the centre was flattened for a promised regeneration project that then stalled for years after the recession.
“When I put that line in about the cesspit of Yorkshire, it was because I felt angry that the city had just been forgotten,” he says. “It had been left. You know, we’ve knocked it flat, we’ve cut all of the services – youth services, council services – and we’ve just left it.
“And nobody cared, and nobody did anything about it. So I wrote the book really bitter. Whoever allowed that to happen allowed Bradford to descend from a position of greatness, which is what it was, into what it became, which was abandoned.
“You only need to go up and down the country and say the word ‘Bradford’, and people get a very specific image of racial tension and an economy which is on its arse. We are, I think, starting to turn that corner, but it’s hard.”
The reputation may not be helped by crime thrillers that paint a picture of its mean streets. But Dhand says his books, which tackle racial and religious tensions, child grooming and terrorism, can’t try to please anyone but his readers.
“My job as a crime writer is to thrill and entertain and to keep you turning the page,” he responds. “It’s not to try and make the city read a certain way.”
The author moved to Bradford at the age of two, when his dad bought a corner shop there. When they arrived, they discovered they were the first Asians on the estate.
On the first day of business, Dhand says, more than half the customers cancelled their newspaper deliveries and an elderly local dropped dead of a heart attack in the shop.
“What you don’t want to happen at that point is for my elderly grandmother to come down the stairs, light some incense and start praying and warding away the evil spirits because a dead body’s in the shop – because now we’re the voodoo witch doctors that are killing white people. It was just a total catastrophe.”
However, Dhand says his father took on the challenge of changing their neighbours’ attitudes.
“My mum said we should pack up and leave because they’re never going to allow us to stay here. My dad’s famous words, which will stay with me, were, ‘No, we’re going to change the narrative. We’re going to win.’
“And we lasted 33 years and left as equals.”
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Hours upon hours were spent observing human behaviour from behind the corner shop counter. Dhand later trained as a pharmacist and still works in pharmacies in Bradford and Leeds.
He now likes to use his dad’s phrase “change the narrative” himself about how he wants to break the mould for British Asian authors and characters.
He is the first Asian author to write a series of crime novels, he says. The books are now being developed for the BBC, and he is desperate to see a TV drama that shows a wider range of Asian characters.
He says: “I’d heard a lot, ‘Asian people don’t write crime.’ I was fed up with that because I’m not a Goodness Gracious Me caricature and I’m not a Citizen Khan sketch.
“There’s a place for those and a place for comedy, but we have to balance it with real, gritty heroes who we can look to.
“I’ve got two boys and I want them to grow up knowing Asian people can be heroes and be compelling and be unlike anything we’ve ever seen before. That’s why I write Harry in the way I do – because I refuse to live in a society where we don’t have an Asian lead.”
He recalls one occasion when a group of young British Asians challenged Dhand to name a true global superstar and role model from an Asian background.
“I was racking my brain. I said Riz Ahmed, which was the only name I could think of.”
He adds: “It was a really sobering moment. The black community have got Beyonce or President Obama or Denzel Washington. They’ve got real issues in their communities, but they’ve got real superstars who they can look to and say, ‘We want to be like that.’ [The youths said] ‘Who do you want us to be like?’
“It was a really upsetting conversation because I thought, ‘God you’re right.'”
If and when Harry Virdee reaches the screen, Dhand hopes he will give those boys a person to look up to.
“That’s why I sit in the chair and write,” he says. “It feels bigger than me writing a book.”
City of Sinners is out in paperback on 21 March. The follow-up, One Way Out, is published on 27 June.
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