About The Author
Trained as an actress, Barbara Nadel used to work in mental health services. Born in the East End of London, she now writes full time and has been a visitor to Turkey for over twenty years. She received the Crime Writers' Association Silver Dagger for her novel Deadly Web, part of her series featuring Inspector Ikmen (dubbed the Turkish Morse), and the Swedish Flintax Prize for historical crime fiction for her first Francis Hancock novel, Last Rights.
As her latest novel, Bright Shiny Things, is published, exclusively for Foyles, we talked to Barbara about the astonishing similarities between paedophile grooming and the way terror organisations recruit, peoples' vulnerability to violent, powerful ideas and why, whether they are white, black or Asian, White, East End women have so much in common.
Questions & Answers
What made you want to write a book exploring the topic of radical Islam? And how did you approach such a sensitive subject?
The original idea for this book was not about radicalisation at all. It was about grooming. Before I became a full-time writer I worked in a psychiatric hospital that incorporated a medium secure unit for mentally disordered offenders. One of the other functions of the unit was to take in offenders from prison for psychiatric assessment. Some prisoners do begin to show signs of mental ill health that are completely genuine but others may attempt to ‘play mad’ in order to get into the ‘softer’ option they perceive such units to be. They’re very wrong, but that’s another story. A disproportionate number of those wishing to get onto the unit by deception were paedophiles.
Manipulative and very difficult to assess, these offenders also possessed a tremendous need to talk about their offences and how they had committed them to members of staff, like me. It was in this way I learned more about grooming than I ever wanted to know and it was this experience that led me to discover the astonishing similarities between paedophile grooming and the way terror organisations like ISIL recruit, particularly young girls, on-line. What these people and organisations represent is almost irrelevant. The fact is they recruit young people in order to further their own agenda/s at the expense of those young people using tried and tested psychological manipulation techniques. Bright Shiny Things isn’t about Islam or any other religion, it’s about power and control.
The East End of London features strongly in the book and you paint an interesting and complex picture of the tides of people from around the world who have made it their home. What draws you to this setting?
I grew up in the East End. My family come from there and it’s my home. When I was a kid it was forever changing and it still is today. It was a wonderful place to grow up, full of life, noise and diversity. Although I’m glad that places like Stratford are being made cleaner, smarter and attracting more business these days, I’m unnerved by the gentrification that seems to be sweeping local people away. Boroughs like Newham have always been working class, but now it seems that only the rich can buy property in the area or, in some cases, even rent somewhere. Poor people still come to Newham looking for new lives, but these days they can find their options limited – and expensive. In addition because of the scarcity of accommodation the old crime of slum landlording has come back to haunt the East End. Its modern incarnation often works hand in hand with crimes like people trafficking and child sexual abuse.
Would you say that your background in psychology has influenced the perspective from which you write a crime novel, especially in relation to radicalisation in Bright Shiny Things?
My psychological background informs everything I write. Questions of ‘sanity’ and ‘insanity’ sit at the heart of an awful lot of crime fiction including Bright Shiny Things. For instance, many people, on learning what ISIL terrorists do to those of whom they disapprove (beheading, burning alive etc) declare that such people have to be mad. But, unless everyone involved in ISIL suffers from delusions, this can’t be so. Both medically and legally, most of these terrorists are ‘sane’ - in other words they know what they’re doing and why they’re doing it. This is not a comfortable thought for most people who would prefer ISIL operatives to be ‘mad’ so that they’re ‘not like us’. What, however, their ‘sanity’ points out and what I find extremely interesting is all human beings' vulnerability to violent, powerful ideas. We are all at risk so we should all be on our guard. Because ISIL is all of us...
Hakim and Arnold are an unusual detective pairing. What strengths do you think they both bring to their partnership?
Mumtaz has the academic knowledge of psychology that Lee lacks. He actually employed her initially in order to gain access to that expertise. But he is learning from her now and doesn’t make the snap judgements about people that he was wont to make earlier on quite so often. As an ex-soldier and ex-policeman, Lee can be inclined to form sometimes erroneous opinions about others very quickly. This is a survival technique that military and policing professionals have to develop in order to be able to sum up a situation quickly. Often this is a matter of life and death and frequently it is absolutely right, which is something Mumtaz is having to learn.
Both Lee and Mumtaz have their demons. His past is characterised by broken relationships, war and addiction. She comes from an abusive marriage and is weighed down by debt and by the responsibility of bringing up her step-daughter on her own. They both, in their own ways, do their best. But both are secretive and much of the tension between them is around what each one doesn’t know, but suspects, about the other. Strengths they both have are that they know their own communities well.
What are your starting points when you write a character like Mumtaz: still fairly young, educated and Muslim?
Mumtaz, like me is an educated, female East Ender from a working class background. White, Black or Asian, East End women have a lot in common, particularly if they are well-educated, because they’ve had to fight hard to get that knowledge. This can make those who do this appear somewhat separate, even aloof. Looked down upon by those above them in the British class system, they can also be resented by those deemed to be below them too, particularly men. Will a girl who is ‘too clever by half’ ever get a husband, for instance?
So my starting point is me and then it is me plus what I learn from younger female East End friends, plus Asian friends and their daughters. I grew up around the Asian community and so a lot of their customs and festivals are things I grew up with too. I am not religious myself but I have always been interested in faith and have made it my business to learn as much as I can about the beliefs of those I’ve lived amongst.
Where do you see the Hakim and Arnold series going next?
I want them to handle a missing person case. Not a current one, a cold case from the 1960s. I’d also like to get them more ‘cyber’ savvy and move into the murky worlds of stolen identities and the truly terrifying depravities of what is known as the ‘Dark Web’. They’ll have to get a bit more computer literate before that happens!