Radhika Holmström talks to AA Dhand, bestselling
crime novelist by night – and independent community pharmacist by day
‘I love being a pharmacist but I also wanted to be a writer,’ says AA Dhand. ‘I wanted to be the first Asian crime writer to break a mainstream publishing deal.’
There’s a resurgence in British crime writing at the moment, and it is very different from the typical cosy mysteries of village crime and weekend parties where one of the characters is found dead. You can still find those, but crime writing has also become a respected genre in its own right.
Part of the reason for that is that today’s themes are a lot grittier – and a lot more disturbing. Now they span a much wider gamut, from domestic psychological thrillers through to the police novels that have regenerated the traditional maverick cop. The middle-aged divorced men with a habit of drinking too much are still very much on the scene, but there are plenty of others alongside.
AA Dhand’s character Harry Virdee is a young Asian policeman, married against his Sikh family’s wishes to a Muslim woman, and doing his best to fight crime on the streets of Bradford that he knows, loves – and has no illusions about. Virdee first hit the shelves in July 2016, in Streets of Darkness, and returned with Girl Zero in July the following year. Film rights were sold before the first publication, and Dhand is working on a TV series. During the day, however, he’s at work at an independent pharmacy.
Starting to write
Dhand has lived in Bradford since he was two, with the exception of two years working post-qualification in London. ‘I was always writing as a child, but I came from a background where science and a stable background were encouraged,’ he says.
His parents ran a convenience store that also rented out videos – which gave him his first glimpse of life on the dark side, as he borrowed films illicitly on a Sunday night. ‘My dad would go and play snooker on a Sunday night, my mum would go to bed early, and I’d watch a movie,’ he says.
Then at 12, on one of the family’s weekly trips to Bradford library, he wandered into the adult section. ‘I found a copy of The Silence of the Lambs, and realised that a book could be turned into a movie.’
Unfortunately, he was rumbled after the combination of the book and the film kept him so terrified he couldn’t sleep for weeks and he had to confess to his parents. But he has never lost that fascination with, as he puts it, ‘stories that take you into a different world’.
He trained as a pharmacist at the University of Bradford and qualified in 2002. After a couple of years working in London, he was back in his home town, working as a hospital and a community pharmacist, along with shifts in the family shop. ‘I wanted to be a pharmacist – and that period was the heyday of pharmacy too – but I had this niggling ambition to write as well.’
He started not with a novel, but with a play: Shaadi, a ‘dark and twisted look at arranged marriages’. Shaadi was praised by industry insiders but wasn’t staged. He then moved on to a TV series, which has never reached the screens.
Then Dhand shifted to the novel form: learning a lot of the craft from scratch but always knowing that he wanted to write a story set in Bradford and treating Asian characters in a way that hadn’t been done before – as players in a hard-hitting, contemporary thriller.
‘My first novel didn’t work,’ he says frankly. ‘My detective was divorced, and down the pub every evening.’ Then in 2012 he started another, set half in Bradford and half in India, went to India to research it and came back with a manuscript that he then rewrote and re-edited…and eventually decided to ditch, after repeated rejections.
A week after he finally abandoned it, in December 2013, he heard he had won a crime-writing competition run by crime-writing bookshop Crime And Punishment. A year after that, now signed to a different agent and still waiting to hear from publishers, he started on something new.
‘I knew I wanted to write about Harry Virdee and about a world I was familiar with. I wanted to write about monocultural meeting multicultural, and I also wanted to write a tense political story. I was subverting all the things I’d done before, too – I wanted to write about a man who’s in a strong relationship with his wife. And I had to write it in six weeks before my own wife gave birth on 16 February. I sent it to my agent, who read it on Friday and accepted it on a Monday.’
In May 2015, seven years after he completed his first play, Dhand had got a two-book deal with Bantam Press – not bad for an aspiring novelist. How did it feel when he finally realised he’d made it?
‘I felt euphoric, and I also felt vindicated,’ he says. ‘I was so determined I was going to break the mould in terms of doing something that hadn’t been done before.’
The day job
Dhand meets quite a lot of those people in his work – and yes, he does see an overlap between being a community pharmacist and a successful novelist. ‘I still absolutely love my job. I have 200 mini-conversations every day. I tend to write about people I meet, their fears and dreams and ambitions. Being a pharmacist has given me a huge platform. I’m constantly streaming intelligence.’
Some of the anger and frustration he writes about probably come from his personal experience of his day job. ‘I think it’s the most difficult job in the world, given the amount of multitasking I do.
We do such a damn hard job without being noticed or involved by the Government, which is creating a diaspora of people who know they are not respected. We’re always up against it, especially with the new funding packages. I love my team and I love the patients, and now we have to look at redundancies and cutting costs. We actually can’t find a way forward.’
There are other Asian crime writers enjoying a lot of success, like Abir Mukherjee (whose A Necessary Evil, the second in his award-winning Rising Man series, came out on 1 June) and Vaseem Khan.
But, unlike Dhand’s work, their books are set in India (and in Mukherjee’s case, in the past).
‘Nobody sets their books in the UK,’ Dhand says. ‘I was frustrated with the clichés and caricatures of Asians in the media. Asians on screen are always playing specific parts – the doctor, the pharmacist, and so on. So much of the writing is based on someone’s true story. I wanted to create something that was uplifting and thrilling at the same time. Crime is the biggest-selling genre in publishing. I wanted to be the person who got Asians onto that stage.’
Hence Harry Virdee, a man who’s broken with his family in order to marry his wife Saima – and has done other things in his past that have ended less happily. ‘I see Harry as everything that’s great about being British, but with brown skin. He’s driven, focused, patriotic, loves his wife and his city and desperately wants to do the right thing. For me that’s what’s right about being British. He’s happily married and that makes him a good bloke. Harry’s cultural baggage doesn’t define who he is.’
It may not define Harry, but it defines a lot of the space where he operates. Dhand’s Bradford is a grim place, as he freely admits, and the anger he feels about that manifests in his writing.
‘I love my city but there doesn’t seem to be a plan for what it should be. Leeds nearby is booming – we’re a seven-minute journey away in a city where it’s completely white and completely brown. That’s not multicultural, it’s monocultural. It’s not integration. So I took the edgiest part of the city and turned it into a crime novel.’
His Bradford is also a place where some appalling things happen. Dhand takes on, among other things, rape and sexual exploitation, unhappy arranged marriages and virulent prejudice, including racism in the Asian community. Those are topics that many writers would feel they could not take on, however much they might want to. For a non-Asian writer, especially one not from Bradford, it would be too problematic.
Dhand, by contrast, can get stuck into this rich seam of characters and themes. ‘I meet so many people who are so frustrated that they cannot follow their dreams, and that manifests itself in a frustration with society as a whole.’
The night shift
But even while he is struggling with the day job, Dhand is continuing to write, producing his own brand of ‘Northern-noir’. ‘I write when it gets dark, so it depends on the time of year when I get started. I like being in the centre of the house to do it. When I wrote Streets of Darkness I was living in a tiny house with a tiny office. Now I’ve developed a small cove on the landing, so I write there.’
The plans for the TV series are going ahead, and he’s particularly pleased with comparisons with Luther (‘I love Luther’) as well as with the opportunity to write for this medium at last. ‘I want to put something on screen, which is why they gave me the first opportunity to write the TV series.’
As far as the novels are concerned, this two-book deal is completed, but other novels are planned.
‘Harry’s part of a story arc, and there are lots more areas to explore that haven’t been covered before.’
Dhand won’t be drawn, of course, on what those might be, saying only: ‘The next one I’m planning is another high-octane, controversial storyline. I like to explore stories that take you into a different world. I want you to be thrilled. It’s always about “what on earth is going on?” ’
Having broken into this world, Dhand is keen for other Asian writers to come to the fore. ‘You have to work really hard at it, but we know we’re doing something that hasn’t been done before. There are so many crime storylines in the world we know about – deceit and lies and trickery that have never been explored before. There’s never been a better time to do it, and hopefully change the publishing industry by showing we can be successful.’
The life and times of AA Dhand
•1979 Born in Hertfordshire
•1981 Moved to Bradford, where his parents ran a shop and video library
•1985 to 1997 Attended Fulneck Christian Moravian School
•2003 Qualified as a pharmacist at Bradford University
•2005 Worked in Bradford, as both a hospital and community pharmacist (as well as shifts in the family store)
•2006 Started writing his first crime thriller
•2008 Wrote a play, Shaadi
•2013 Secured a two-book deal for the Harry Virdee novels