This is the second novel by A A Dhand, an author who exploded onto the crime fiction scene back in 2016 with his novel Streets of Darkness. So impressed was I with the author’s debut that I rated it as my book of 2016, so I couldn’t wait to get hold of Girl Zero. So, was it any good? Did it live up to Streets of Darkness? Or would Dhand succumb to the dreaded Second Book Syndrome, where the expectations from the first novel were too much and the second novel failed to compare? Well, I’m pleased to say that Girl Zero is a brilliant follow up to Streets of Darkness and Dhand has secured his place as one of the most impressive new voices to appear on the crime fiction landscape in many a year.
Once again, we’re with Detective Inspector Harry Virdee, a Sikh police officer estranged from his family after he chose to marry a Muslim woman. The novel opens with his arrival at the scene of a murder, only to discover the victim is his niece, the daughter of his brother, a drug lord who runs Bradford’s narcotics trade. This is only the start of the narrative however and without giving away too many spoilers, the story soon branches out to encompass the sex trade, the exploitation of vulnerable young women by traffickers, drugs and corruption.
As with the previous novel, Streets of Darkness, in some ways the plot of Girl Zero is beside the point. Streets of Darkness received rave reviews with some (including, but not exclusively, myself) comparing it to The Wire. This comparison is equally valid to the sequel, Girl Zero. The two novels transcend much contemporary crime fiction, for they don’t just have a sense of place, rather they elevate that place – the city of Bradford – into a character in and of itself. Girl Zero takes this further than Streets of Darkness with the characters often referring to Bradford as they might a dark, malignant force. They talk of the city corrupting people; one character even talks of feeding someone to the streets of Bradford and letting the city “do what it does best”. This is never overdone however, it’s not shoehorned into the story, rather it fits with the carefully crafted atmosphere that Dhand has drawn, both in Girl Zero and Streets of Darkness.
As with David Simon’s treatment of Baltimore in The Wire, I can see a criticism being levelled at Dhand here. Some will say that he’s not doing much for Bradford’s image, that he’s bad mouthing the city, hyping its dark side while downplaying its strengths. While that’s a risk with any crime novel or thriller that’s set in a particular locale, I feel it would be unfair here. Bradford does have its problems, ravaged by riots in 2001, plagued by racial division and blighted by poverty. As with David Simon’s television series The Wire, Dhand’s novels focus on these issues – they are crime thrillers after all. But as with The Wire, there’s also a strong sense of good people battling to make their city a better place for ordinary people to live. Whereas David Simon’s series had Dominic West’s character Jmmy McNulty, Dhand’s novels have his protagonist, Detective Inspector Harry Virdee.
Furthermore, while there might be some residents of Baltimore and Bradford who don’t recognise their respective cities in the work of these writers, I suspect there will be others who do. For doesn’t every city have its dark underbelly? And isn’t this always unseen to the well-to-do? As a former journalist, I certainly learnt how to see the darkness hidden in plain sight and there were many times while working for Channel 4 Dispatches that I went to one place or another to find the ugliness that was just beneath the surface. More often than not, when I looked, I found.
Finally, for those who worry about Bradford’s image, there might be one silver lining. Apparently, the success of The Wire has led to a tourism boom, with fans of the programme taking tours of Baltimore’s less salubrious neighbourhoods. Similarly, Breaking Bad led to an influx of visitors to Albuquerque, New Mexico. While in Scotland, fans of Ian Rankin’s Inspector Rebus can take walking tours of Edinburgh dedicated to the character and the locales that appear in the books. If AA Dhand gains the success I think he truly deserves, Bradford may well find itself next on this list and local business may be more than a little grateful.