The Light of Day

(Literary Masterpieces, Volume 20)

The Light of Day, fifty-four-year-old Graham Swift’s seventh novel, is a conventional, traditional private-eye story told in a modern, unconventional way. Raymond Chandler, who was largely responsible for popularizing the private-eye genre in Britain, would hardly recognize Swift’s novel as a twenty-first century descendant of the Black Mask school of American literature. Swift, who holds a master’s degree from Cambridge University, told an interviewer that he learned in books most of his information about the people and landscape he describes in his writing. His reading must have included the works of Chandler, Dashiell Hammett, Ross Macdonald, and James M. Cain. Swift taught English part-time at several London colleges from 1974 to 1983 and is obviously an academician at heart. His venture into the private-eye genre is something like Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart or Ludwig van Beethoven displaying his virtuosity by playing infinite variations on a simple tune like “Three Blind Mice.”

In fact, Swift gives the whole plot away in the beginning pages, so that the reader knows early not only who did it but also where, when, how, and why it was done. These gory and puzzling details of the “Nash case” recur in Webb’s memory as he drives about the sprawling city of London. The reader is thoroughly familiar with all the past events long before the last page, which is not really the end of anything, as it leaves Webb exactly where he was at the beginning.

Swift limits his frame story to a single day, as he did in his Booker Prize-winning novel Last Orders, published in 1996. The characters in The Light of Day, except for the solipsistic private-eye narrator, are rather diaphanous because they exist only in the narrator’s stream of consciousness. One of them has left the country more than two years previously, one lives in a shadowy never-never land behind bars, and another is long dead. They are never clearly described as to appearance or personality.

Dr. Robert Nash is the man creating all the problems, through his infidelity. Kristina Lazic, the femme fatale, is the object of his affections—but any other young woman could have done just as well for this man experiencing a midlife crisis. Inspector Marsh is the quintessential tough police detective who suspects everybody and believes nothing. Sarah is the suffering wife who feels not only betrayed but dismayed at finding her comfortable, upper-middle-class world falling apart. Rita, Webb’s secretary and general factotum, is slavishly devoted to her boss and functions as his bad conscience, like Effie Perine in Hammett’s classic The Maltese Falcon (1930). Rita keeps reminding her boss that he was foolish to fall in love with his client, a rather severe, intellectual woman who was not a great beauty to begin with and who will be fifty-two or fifty-three by the time she gets out of prison. (Webb’s passion for a woman in prison is another echo of The Maltese Falcon, in the last chapter of which Sam Spade tells Brigid O’Shaughnessy, “You angel! Well, if you get a good break you’ll be out of San Quentin in twenty years and you can come back to me then.”)

In fact, the well-read Swift’s characters might be called stock figures from the private-eye genre. This defect—if it is to be considered a defect and not just another postmodernist innovation—is undoubtedly due to the fact that most of them exist only in the narrator’s mind. The narrator himself is presented as a semi-articulate man of limited education. (Sarah Nash is trying to help him improve his writing by correcting his manuscripts when he brings them to her on his fortnightly prison visits. In return, he writes about his impressions of the outside world—the world that exists in “the light of day” rather than in the artificial light of prison—which she savors in her cheerless confinement.) The influence of James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) is obvious throughout Swift’s novel, although Swift is not as concerned with bringing his London to life as was Joyce with his dear, dirty Dublin.

Several years before the single November day covered in the present tense, Sarah hired George Webb to shadow her husband, who was having an affair. Webb thought it rather ironic that a gynecologist would want anything further to do with women’s bodies after office hours, but he was familiar with the old story of a middle-aged man losing interest in his wife in favor of a woman young enough to be his daughter. The job seemed ridiculously simple. His client even provided the address of her husband’s love nest. Bob Nash had already confessed his infidelity to his wife and agreed to break off the relationship with...

(The entire section is 1936 words.)