Graeme Malcolm, the reader of Graham Swift’s 2003 novel The Light of Day, has a friendly, man-next-door kind of voice (though as he’s British, maybe we should make that bloke-next-door). That’s a perfect choice despite the book’s occasional subject matter or, in fact, because of it. The novel tells of an event that’s extraordinary in one person’s life, but seen throughout a career in police work is routine, almost common. When policemen live in your neighborhood, you see them mow their lawn, take out their trash, push their kids on the swing. And yet nearly every day, they find themselves in situations of violence, bathos, squalor.
George Webb, the book’s narrator, has taken up a second career as a private detective after being kicked off the police force. The bulk of his work is matrimonial: tail wayward husbands and secure proof of infidelity. As the book starts, the crime at the heart of the story has already happened. A woman has killed her cheating husband. The Light of Day uses the procedures of a traditional detective story to tell a much different kind of story. Instead of a whodunnit, what Swift has written is more of a whydunnit. The book is an examination of one man’s life as it connects to a single crime, with tangents for related personal history that shapes him and his reaction to that crime. It is also George’s attempts to pierce together why this woman, Sarah, killed her husband, and why he, George, is falling in love with her.
Webb tells a number of interconnected, interwoven stories in the course of the novel, each one anecdotal — a compartmentalized bits-and-pieces approach that is moving on the small and large scale. Throughout the course of one day’s activities (visit the grave of the murdered husband, then visit Sarah in prison) we come to learn how Webb got the job; how he performed on the job; the events leading to his firing; about his father’s infidelity and eventual death; and Webb’s own marriage, its dissolution, his relationship with his lesbian daughter, and his falling in love. The effect of all this is to see a life as a multifaceted thing, how life puts us in the position of being vastly different things to different people.
It’s a good deal of information and activity and much of it resonates throughout the novel. Swift is effective in extrapolating small elements from each segment and getting them to echo across the greater whole. He writes as though composing a symphony or a variation on a theme. Plot points of the story repeat themselves, loop back on themselves, little visual cues are touched again and again, a shaft of light falling over a desk, a vase of flowers, fountain pens, an empty bed. The narration twists on past and present, the ghosts of what was and what could have been haunting the same streets, the same shops, two years on.
And yet, there's a bit of the British distance here, Swift letting us hear this man's melancholy and suffering, but with something of the stiff upper lip about it. His wife has left him years ago, he’s fallen in love with a client who is now in prison, and his life has narrowed down to the confines of job, fortnightly prison visits, and weekly dinners with his daughter. It is all presented in a barely cracking emotional sterility, poetic for its mundanity as well as its hopelessness. And each moment allows George to give us a glimpse of that person underneath. He writes at one point:
When you follow two people, when you follow anyone, and they don't know you're there, it's hard not to feel a flutter of power. As if you can decide their fate. Your foot over the scurrying beetle. The mysterious urge to protect.
The later, as he leaves the prison from visiting with Sarah, he describes himself like this: "Inside me is a glow, as if I'm the black shell of a house at night, lit up inside." This is what we see of him, what he doesn’t allow others to see, the self-reflective quality of that house lit up inside at night. Swift manages to take a rather straightforward enough mystery convention and turn it into a poetic reflection on the self, yet he does it in a way that is both gripping and imminently readable.