Out of joint
June 10, 2011 § Leave a comment
David Belbin’s novel has been in the top ten at amazon.co.uk for several weeks. It introduces an “unusual and dynamic crime partnership”, according to regional fiction specialists Tindal Street Press (a pretty dynamic bunch themselves – three Booker nominations since 2003).
Sarah Bone is young, female and a Labour MP, still in opposition in early 1997. She has made a name for herself as a campaigner for penal reform. The book opens at a party to celebrate the release of a man wrongly convicted for the brutal double murder of a policeman and his wife. He is a splendidly obnoxious character and almost at once Sarah begins to wonder whether he might be guilty after all. Meanwhile her former lover Nick Cane is also free on parole after serving five years for drug dealing – and he is asking himself who tipped off the law.
Belbin’s plot ranges from the wine bars of Westminster to the mini cab offices and sink estates of Nottingham. You get the feeling that he’s more at home in Nottingham, but fortunately Parliament is dissolved early on and MPs retire to their constituencies for the general election. He does a good job of ramping up the tension in the run to the polls. The outcome is history (a Tory rout and 418 seats for Labour) but there are dirty tricks and dark secrets on all sides and genuine doubt about whether Sarah Bone will come out on top. Tony Blair and Gordon Brown play cameo roles on the telephone.
So far, so gripping. But with the election over the novel collapses into soap opera. Rather too many characters drink, dope and jump into bed – and nothing much comes of any of it. I spent a chapter or two waiting for the plot U-turn, but once the ballot papers have been counted the twin threads of the story – election and murder mystery – unravel before the reader’s eyes.
I had problems with Sarah Bone. Well-drawn and sympathetic as a heroine… but as a MP? President of the student union, yes; backbencher with a future, no. She pulls off a couple of coups, but in private she seems too impulsive and too much at the mercy of her own feelings. We know that politicians are human, and God knows they get caught with their trousers down often enough, but my honourable friend the member for Nottingham West, smoking a spliff on the balcony of her flat alongside her ex-con lover? Never heard of telephoto lenses? My fingers were clenched on my Kindle, waiting for the paparazzi to leap out from behind a neighbour’s dustbin.
The other half of the title, Nick Cane, doesn’t do much to hold things together. Ex-Labour activist, ex-teacher, ex-cannabis farmer and ex-con, he spends too much of our time with him being self-indulgent and inconsequential. In the end it’s hard to care what happens to him.
There is a serious theme at the back of this book. Life moves on: people change, make new commitments, discover new limitations, become bigger or smaller than they were. Usually we don’t notice because we are moving on too, but five years in the limbo of a cell can make the alteration in friends and loved ones seem dramatic. Belbin, I suspect, finds the vision of a life out of joint which ends the book more interesting than the crime story that begins it, and the two never quite blend together.