Book review: Bone and Cane by David Belbin

Bone and Cane
by David Belbin
Tindal Street Press, 2012 (pb)

Sarah Bone is a Labour MP, having won a by-election in a previously Tory Nottingham seat. It is 1997 and a general election is looming. Sarah is certain she’ll lose, as no MP who has won a by-election seat previously held by another party has won it again in the subsequent general election. Sarah is a committed parliamentarian, working hard to obtain better conditions for prisoners. One case she’s taken up is that of a constituent, Ed Clark, who has been convicted of killing a police officer and his wife, on the flimsiest of evidence. Sarah has been pushing for an appeal and, via the campaign for Ed, has been instrumental in getting his conviction quashed. As the book opens, Sarah is at a party in London to celebrate Ed’s release. There, she finds herself in a dangerous and unpleasant situation, and learns something that she wishes she had never known.

Returning to her constituency to begin the election campaign, Sarah is pretty lonely, having recently split up from her boyfriend Dan. Once in Nottingham, she sees a man driving a taxi whom she is convinced is her old flame, Nick Cane. The two were lovers at university and heavily involved in the political scene, but soon after graduating, Sarah briefly joined the police force and Nick became a teacher: the two drifted apart and have not been in touch since.

The story is told from the points of view of Sarah and of Nick, so the reader is aware that Nick has been in prison for five years for an offence involving drugs. He’s been released on parole but cannot teach or do any job of interest because of his criminal record. He therefore takes an illegal role as a cab driver in his amenable brother Joe’s successful company. He’s aware that Sarah is back in town, but assumes she won’t want to have anything to do with him now she’s a successful politician and he’s an ex-con.

By a double coincidence, Nick becomes involved in the Ed Clark case. First, he becomes attracted to a woman called Polly and begins an affair with her. Polly is the sister of the dead policeman and is now bringing up her two nephews as well as her own children (her husband apparently walked out as a result of her generosity). Second, Nick discovers that Ed is a quasi-colleague as he also drives a taxi for his brother’s firm — but legally, as he’s been acquitted of his crime.

Both Nick and Sarah separately become suspicious of the boorish Ed, who is an obnoxious, chauvinistic fantasist. Uneasy with what she now thinks she knows about the case, Sarah begins her own enquiries to find out how the victims died, and learns about some evidence that the police never used in the original prosecution. Later on in the book, Nick and Sarah meet and realise that their attraction to each other has not dimmed. But there seem to be too many obstacles to their renewal of their relationship: Nick’s criminal record, Sarah’s work commitments, whether Nick can support himself independently, and so on. Both Ed and Polly also threaten the path of true love. Everything comes to a climax on the eve and immediate aftermath of the 1997 general election in which Labour won a famous landslide victory. Sarah finds out part of the true answer to the Ed case, but it is only Nick who knows the full picture by the end.

I enjoyed reading Bone and Cane, not least for its depiction of Britain in 1997, on the cusp of an idealistic future after 13 years of continuous Tory government, and for its details of Nottingham life. Sarah’s world as a Westminster politician and constituency MP is also fascinating, as she has to decide whether to go for the option of contesting an unsafe seat, and what to do if she loses (she gets a range of rather different employment offers during the novel). However, there were elements I did not like, mainly the constant drug-taking and the fact that Nick is depicted as a decent man whose crime (of supplying industrial-scale drugs to dealers) is presented as victimless and almost even justified. The several mysteries set up: for example who if anyone shopped Nick to the police; whether Ed committed the crime he was convicted for; and what he’s really up to now, are all resolved in a rather perfunctory fashion. Sarah Bone is the strongest and most likeable character in the book, with her combination of intelligence, drive and integrity, and I shall certainly look forward to reading more about her. (The next novel in the series, The Drugs Don’t Work, is due out in May.)

I bought my copy of this book, and thank Sharon Wheeler (@Lartonmedia) for recommending it to me.

Other reviews of Bone and Cane: Cadaverene magazine, The Guardian (brief), and from many readers at UK Amazon (where the book was apparently the top UK Kindle seller for many weeks).

About the book at the publisher’s website.

About the author at Wikipiedia – he has written a great deal of young adult fiction and teaches creative writing at Nottingham Trent University.