Light of Day
Graham Swift’s latest novel is, first, a satisfying first-person detective story, more film noir than M. Dupin. Further, The Light of Day is an exercise in the conditional mood, of possibility, obligation, necessity; of what might have been, could have been, and what might be. Finally, the detective genre’s conventions, engraved in stone by Edgar Allen Poe, allow the novelist the means to make sense, momentarily, of modern life, while questioning the stability of the order it creates.
The detective plot, the past, is this: Sarah Nash, translator and lecturer, hires the narrator, George Webb, disgraced police detective turned to “matrimonial work,” to follow her husband, Bob, a gynecologist (“Shouldn’t they make safe husbands?” George wonders [p. 7]), and his mistress, Kristina, to Heathrow and to report on their parting as the woman leaves England (and, Sarah hopes, Bob). Simple case: “Money for old rope,” the narrator reminds himself more than once, “I might have handed it over to Rita,” his more than capable assistant and former client [p. 15]. As the wayward husband walks away from the boarding gate, George calls Sarah, his job done, until he sees in Nash “a man […] who seemed to have become a nobody. So for a second or two it was like looking in a mirror. Is that me? That lost soul?” [p. 171]. George (characters are referred to almost exclusively by first names) follows the stricken man back to his mistress’s flat [p. 177], then home to Wimbledon and Sarah’s coq au vin. George drives away, but comes to “A tyre-squealing halt […] As if something had hit me in the chest” [p. 210], and backtracks to find police responding to Sarah’s call that she has stabbed her husband to death. The facts of the crime are not the mystery.
Moral, political, and bureaucratic complexities raise this marital triangle above commonplace suburban adultery, and render Sarah’s concessions to Bob less pathetic: Kristina is Croatian, “an asylum seeker: she had their asylum. The rules of charity” [p. 59]. The infidelity that brings Sarah to George’s office arises from the best of human impulses gone wrenchingly awry. The Nashes had taken in Kristina out of a sense of their own prosperity: “Charity: okay if you’ve got the money, if you’ve got the room,” George considers, “But for pity’s sake. Have a heart. Can’t a good deed be a good deed?” [pp. 34–5]. Apparently not. Kristina is leaving not because the affair is over, but because the Croats have won the war that orphaned her; she’s no longer a refugee.
Sarah’s loyalty to something larger than a marriage vow is balanced with the scandal that ended both George’s career with the Force and his marriage years before. Caught on tape misleading a suspect into confessing, George remains “shocked […] at how the story […] became how I’d shown myself to be a crooked cop and had to be made an example of, and not the story of how Lee Dyson had […] almost committed murder in fact (and not for the first time), but was going to walk free” [p. 110]. Taunted by a former colleague, George “might have said, ‘Phoney statements can be true, even if they’re not what the witness ever said’” [p. 64]. “Might have” infiltrates The Light of Day.
George’s downfall and Sarah’s are each provoked by an impulse to do a good thing—reinforced by a question that becomes a refrain, “What’s civilization for?”. Civilization seems to have to do with providing the quotidian comforts of “Public benches, golf courses” [p. 123], of “A man and a woman (in this case, George’s daughter, Helen) at a candlelit table. Interior design. Don’t knock it—what’s civilization for?” [p. 98].
Cooking is another recurring signifier of civilization, since, no matter what happens, “We all have to eat” [p. 25]. At Helen’s suggestion George enrolled in cooking classes post-divorce (he might have entertained the possibility earlier than he does that his thirtyish daughter is a lesbian, it seems to me). He takes to the culinary arts body and soul. Cooking provides a connection to Sarah, when, after their initial appointment, he strikes up a conversation in the grocery. The irony (statistically no irony at all) that Sarah kills her husband in the “kitchen with the copper pans and the oven hood” [p. 24] does not nullify George’s contention that, “In the careful and loving cooking of a meal there is […] a sort of healing power” [p. 162]. Given what we know about “the simple civilized act of cooking” [p. 163], readers cannot discredit Sarah’s intentions, though once again the results are disastrous. Civilization’s rituals are no less necessary because what does happen is not what should have.
George entered “matrimonial work” at the age of eleven, after overhearing his photographer-father’s golf partner ask if he’s still taking pictures of George’s schoolmate’s mum. At that moment, the boy realizes he can never tell anyone what he’s heard,
After tracking Mrs. Freeman and his father to their tryst, young George realizes that “because I’d always know—I’d have to go on pretending, even after it had died a death” [p. 102]; somewhat paradoxically for a detective in this line, he contends, “Some things are best never known” [p. 201]. Perhaps that’s what civilization is for, to shield us from knowledge like George’s mum’s revelation, when her husband’s last words are the other woman’s name, that “If she could trade it all back, not the fact, just the knowing, the having to know, she’d have settled for that” [p. 121]. In the novel’s present, George acknowledges, “There are things I can’t and won’t tell Sarah yet. Perhaps I never will” [p. 178]—that Bob had gone back to Fulham, that after leaving the flat the second time, he nearly drove his car into a truck, that George has kept a photo, taken in his father’s Chislehurst studio when Sarah was five, that she asked him to burn.
The historical past of Empress Eugénie, whose biography Sarah continues to translate in prison, and whose fifty years surviving Napoleon III will parallel Sarah’s, becomes for Swift a discursive space to enlarge the novel’s scope, to engage questions about civilization. In exile, Eugénie and her husband lived at Chislehurst, which became the golf course where George caddied for his father, who told his son that “where there were golf courses there was civilization” [p. 235]. Counterpoised are institutions intended, however unsuccessfully, to advance civilization: the United Nations, the Red Cross, and Switzerland, where Kristina may never hear of her lover’s murder. Switzerland is “A civilized country. The snag they say, is that it’s just a bit boring. A safe, unexciting place” [p. 215]. So, what is civilization for?
The plot’s past is intercut with the present, 1997, the second anniversary of the crime. George is on a secretive mission (too embarrassing to admit, I might guess) to deliver roses to the murdered man’s grave, to listen for a message from him, and to report back to Sarah, whom George visits in prison every other Thursday. The weakness of The Light of Day lies in this present frame, in Swift’s literariness rather than his use of genre. George’s standing on an as-yet-unidentified murdered man’s grave, for instance, seems an irritatingly precious reminder that Swift’s is a literary novel. Swift is enabled by his choice of genre: because it’s a detective novel, the reader continues, assured that all will be explained in good time. He delivers on that expectation, but the withholding of information seems uncalled for.
How George’s and Sarah’s past came to be their present and how the present will become the future George is planning is blurry, if not vague. The reader may share the mystification that Helen and Rita, the other women in his life, feel about George’s love—if love is the right word—for the imprisoned Sarah. We may not expect to understand Sarah’s motivation for killing Bob any more than she does, that “(What else could she say?) ‘Something came over me and I did it’” [p. 244]. Murder is the work of an instant, but the only explanation Swift provides for George’s motives is that, on seeing Sarah in the kitchen-turned-crime-scene, “if I hadn’t known it before (but I did), I knew it now. If I hadn’t felt it before, I felt it now. A stab to the heart” [p. 219]. Is “it” the same stab that Bob felt? Whatever the ambiguous “it” might refer to, “Bob’s body was between us. We looked at each other, amazed. I might have sworn it aloud, there and then, in front of police witnesses. Ends of the earth. Beyond” [p. 219]. What? Are the two eternally linked by Bob’s body? Is the stab to the heart love (for George), rather than the mercy kill George leads us to believe Sarah delivered Bob? The sexual spark between George and Sarah is ignited in his retelling, not before. He had bedded previous clients (including his assistant Rita), but not Sarah. Before she killed her husband, their “few free moments together. They’d barely add up to a couple of hours. And if I’d never said, ‘I cook too’” [p. 30]. They had met only to discuss her case, though at their last meeting he has “A lapse of professional concentration […] thinking: I may not see her again, not like this” [p. 104].
There’s no question that Swift, the author of Waterland and Last Orders, is willing to take writerly risks; using a familiar, even predictable form might be the most difficult literary test for a writer. To give credit due, in spite of my quibbling, Swift’s handling of the detective form is accessible, less kiss-me-I’m-an-artist than the work of others who’ve attempted this genre. The Light of Day satisfies literary reader and consumer of mysteries alike, and I speak as both.
The ending of George and Sarah’s story—their chronological present, not the end of Swift’s narrative—strikes me as less satisfying and particularly contrived. In what to most readers may seem a strange turn, the imprisoned Sarah is teaching George to write, “More than just letters. A correspondence course, homework” [p. 131]. Are there no other means by which one could make sense of one’s experience? Or should the question be how else might a man ingratiate himself to a woman to whom words matter? Or how else could a writer imagine that? The possibility is set up: the first time George meets Sarah, he has “the exact thought: She’s reading my face like a book. But that’s just an expression. I didn’t read faces like books (I didn’t read many books). I read faces like faces” [p. 7]. Throughout, George has been trying to retell the story of “the only case that counts” [p. 132] without its awful ending; if this writing class is his—Swift’s? George’s?—way to imagine a happier ending, I’m not sure it suffices.
Still, George’s writing is almost justified. Before Swift alerts us to just how badly awry things have gone, the narrator obsessively reflects on how Bob’s homecoming might have gone otherwise, “Trying to find the point where the sequence might have been different, where it might have turned another way. So that this time around, at last, the third time of trying, she won’t do it” [p. 154]. George wants to a chance to replay Bob’s death, “As if I should stand in for him entirely: the whole re-run. His double. And she’d raise the knife and see it was me. And this time, really, she’d stop” [p. 182].
In twinning detective with murder victim rather than with murderer, Swift deftly violates Poe’s doppelganger motif; what the alteration impends for Sarah and George remains bewildering. At Heathrow, the beginning of the end, the narrator proposes that either Bob escapes (with Kristina) or George does; if Bob returns to Sarah, “he was spared. Sarah was spared. We were all spared” [p. 197]. Once again, the reader is confused, spared from what? Is this love? And if not, what is it?
Swift, as Poe did, chews over another comfortable detective-fiction convention, the different ways and consequences of knowing. George gives “Ten out of ten for detection (and for that other thing that goes with it, sometimes: intuition)” [p. 87]. But Swift introduces a third, hitherto unknown sense. In George’s seeking to explain his turning back the night of Bob’s murder and his present connection with Sarah, the detective claims he “knew what [the black taste in his mouth] meant. Or why should I have gone back, turned round and gone back?” [p. 28], and, referring to the same moment, “some things you know. It’s not detection, it’s not even intuition. You know” [p. 210]. Other readers besides me may be unfamiliar with a faculty that allows George to know what has transpired without evidence or intuition.
When during post-murder questioning, George wants to (but does not) tell investigators, “It was me—I’ll come clean. Have me, take me instead,” a cynical reader might wonder why? When George follows the impulse to false confession with, “What else is love for?” [p. 130], the same reader might wonder, what is what for? What this reader may fail to understand is less what has happened in the two years since George received that “stab to the heart,” but why. After their first conversation once the detective-client relationship is established, Sarah feels guilty that “‘I’ve just talked about me. I don’t know about you.’” George reassures her that “‘You don’t need to know’” [p. 31]. He might have been wrong about that need. At least, Swift shouldn’t assume that the reader doesn’t need to know.
Light of Day is finally more intriguing than irritating, and
its intrigue might lie in that recurring question, “What’s
civilization for?” Sometimes it’s boring. For George,
it seems to consist in “not having or keeping—it’s
not even knowing […] It’s not fair, it’s not just,
it goes beyond the law, but it works the other way too. Whatever you
are, whatever you do, there’ll always be this someone for you
who won’t let you disappear” [p. 218]. The ambiguity
that Graham Swift leaves us with—what “it” is this?
Is it the same as the stab to the heart? Is the “you”
George speaks of Sarah, or himself, or all of us who are civilized?—will
bring readers back to the novel more than once.