The Sunlight Dialogues was Gardner’s first major success in his writing career—a best seller for a number of weeks and a critically acclaimed serious novel of ideas. A long novel, it has a considerable amount of action, but it also contains extensive passages of discussion and debate on moral and philosophical issues, which is characteristic of Gardner’s fiction, always deeply concerned with how abstract matters translate into the everyday human situation.
The novel centers on the confrontation between representatives of two differing points of view. One is a chief of police, the other a “magician,” and their dispute concerns law and order, the universe, and humanity’s place in that universe. The police chief, Fred Clumly, and the magician, known for most of the novel only as the Sunlight Man, thus are not only individuals but also representatives of much more.
The Sunlight Man is actually Taggert Hodge, member of a prominent local family now in decline. Taggert, who had fled the town of Batavia, New York, sixteen years previously, has returned for his own version of revenge and redemption. Clumly is drawn into this against his will, but once entered into the pursuit of the Sunlight Man, he becomes caught up in an even larger chase, that of the elusive truth. In a sense captive to his strange relationship with the Sunlight Man, Clumly allows his life and work to collapse, worrying his blind wife, Esther, and angering the mayor and city council, who eventually fire him. He joins the Sunlight Man for a final meeting at Stony Hill, the family home of the Hodges, now in decline, and the two men come to a half-spoken agreement. Later the Sunlight Man tries to surrender to the police; by mistake he is killed, shot (significantly enough) through the heart.
To express the search for meaning and order in which the Sunlight Man and Clumly engage, Gardner fashions his work around four dialogues between Clumly and the Sunlight Man...
(The entire section is 807 words.)