Today Amer Anwar, author of Western Fringes, has written a guest post names Why No Cops? in which he tells us a bit about himself and explains why he chose to write his book from the aspect he did.
WHY NO COPS?
Why no cops? Well, that’s two questions in one really. First, why I chose not to write about a conventional detective or police main character and secondly, why the people in the book, for the most part, try and steer clear of any police involvement.
So, firstly, why did I want to write characters who weren’t police detectives or other law enforcement personnel. Well, when I first got into crime fiction it was through reading Elmore Leonard. For someone who’d grown up in the 1970s and 1980s, I was used to TV shows like ‘Starsky & Hutch’ and ‘The Sweeney’, where the police were the good guys and the criminals were just the baddies and that was it. That’s not to say I didn’t enjoy all of that – I loved it!
But reading those first Elmore Leonard novels was to get a whole new spin on what a crime story could be. The first one I read was ‘Killshot’, about a professional hitman who winds up partnering with a small-time crook on a scam and through a case of mistaken identity, the two of them end up in a battle with a builder. It’s a great book. What really struck me though, was here was a crime story, with barely a policeman in sight. A hitman, a thief and a builder – and it’s the builder, a regular guy, who is the hero of the book.
At this same time, I was hanging out with friends in Southall and hearing stories about various things that were going on in the area – some shady, some violent, and some just totally out there! – and it got me thinking… that all the stuff I was hearing about would be great for a book. At the time I was hoping someone would write something like that, set in the area… but no one did. The idea stayed with me and would eventually become ‘Western Fringes’.
It was also a case of ‘write what you know’. I didn’t know any policemen nor did I know much about police procedure or anything like that. What I did know about was growing up as a British Asian and I knew about the guys I’d hung out with, in and around Southall. There were plenty of books about policemen and detectives but nothing featuring Asian characters as leads and nothing that reflected anything like my experience of Southall; so that’s what I determined to write. Elmore Leonard, Richard Stark and Joe R. Lansdale, along with many others showed me it was possible to write a crime novel without having to focus on the police or professional private detectives. Instead, it could be fairly ordinary people getting into dubious situations. That was more along the lines of what I knew. It also saved me having to do loads of research into police procedure etc. Turned out all the time I’d spent hanging out in Southall with my friends had actually been research all along.
That’s what I chose not to write from a more normal detective point-of-view. It still leaves the question of why the characters in the book shy away from getting involved with the police themselves. I guess the reasons for this go back to the first generation of Asians to settle in Southall in the 1960s and 1970s. Racism was a fact of daily life for the whole community; it was also very evident in the attitude of the police towards them. It all came to a flashpoint in events leading up to, during and after the Southall riots.
When the National Front and other fascist groups provocatively chose to hold a meeting at Southall Town Hall, the local Asian community demonstrated against it. The police response was heavy-handed, to say the least. National Front members were protected and escorted to the venue by police as they threw Nazi salutes and racist jibes at the demonstrators. When things got heated, the police used truncheons to disperse the crowd and arrested many Asians, young and old. Incidents like this did nothing to encourage the local community to trust the police.
It was a little while after this that a National Front supporting band planned to play a gig in Southall. Ignoring numerous objections from the locals, the concert was allowed to go ahead. It was seen as a direct provocation and the police were seen to be complicit by providing protection to the bus loads of openly racist National Front supporters that came to Southall. This was the flashpoint for the riots. While trying to protect those in the pub, the police used force to break up the demonstrators and the situation soon escalated into a full-blown riot. Many people, young and old were injured by police, with teacher Blair Peach being killed by a police baton blow to the head. No policeman has ever been charged over his death.
Relations between the Asian community and the police hit an all-time low after these events. This was the early 1980s and racism was fairly overt in society and very much so in the police, so there was no trust in them. You, therefore, had two generations of the Asian community who had absolutely no faith in the police. That attitude and distrust were invariably passed on to the generations that followed.
It took a long time to start to fix things but it did start to happen, slowly. I think a big part of that was down to the recognised importance of community policing, having officers who regularly walked a beat in the area and got to know the place, the people and understood what went on there. By the late 1990s, I remember things had started to change and there seemed to be a good rapport between the community and the police.
I think it’s very unfortunate that the present government has seen fit to oversee such drastic cuts to community policing, not only in Southall but in communities all across the country that have really clearly benefited from it.
It is against this background of distrust of the police that the characters in the book would have grown up, hearing stories of the riots and the police’s treatment of the Asian community. For some people, that distrust may never truly go away and will get passed down over the years. Added to this is the fact the main character in the book, Zaq, is an ex-con and circumstances mean that if the police get involved in what’s going on, it could prove very bad for him. At certain points, he has little other option than to call the police but he does so reluctantly and, in a couple of cases, he provides information only indirectly.
A hangover from the aggressive policing of the ’70s and ’80s, coupled with his own situation means that for Zaq, as well as a lot of people in Southall, even to this day, going to the police is sometimes only a last resort.
WESTERN FRINGES WINNER OF THE CWA DEBUT DAGGER AWARD
Southall, West London. After being released from prison, Zaq Khan is lucky to land a dead-end job at a builders’ yard. All he wants to do is keep his head down and put the past behind him.
But when he’s forced to search for his boss’s runaway daughter it quickly becomes apparent things aren’t all to do with family arguments and arranged marriages as he finds himself caught up in a deadly web of deception, murder and revenge.
With time running out and pressure mounting, can he find the missing girl before it’s too late? And if he does, can he keep her – and himself – alive long enough to deal with the people who want them both dead?
Western Fringes is the tough new crime thriller set in the heart of West London’s Asian community. If you’re a fan of gritty action, sharp dialogue and great characters, you’ll love this cracking debut novel from CWA Debut Dagger Award winner Amer Anwar.