George Webb

Created by Graham Swift

“The things people ask you to do…”

Who’d a thunk it?

Remember, at the end of Hammett’s The Maltese Falcon, when Sam Spade tells Brigid O’Shaughnessy, just as she’s being carted off to prison, that he would wait for her?

Well, with that concept in mind, Booker Prize-winning author Graham Swift takes a swing at the private eye genre with The Light of Day (2003) and whacks one out of the park.

GEORGE WEBB, the narrator, is a middle-aged divorced ex-cop (his wife left him after he was fired for poor judgment and the ensuing scandal) turned London private investigator with an office over a tanning salon. specializing in “matrimonial work.” When we meet him, he’s still stewing over his relationship with Sarah Nash, a former client who was ultimately sent to prison for the murder of her husband. Webb’s got it bad for the dame, and so he’s biding his time, cooling his heels, waiting — in true noir fashion — for her to be released.

Worse, he’s still haunted by his part in the whole messy business — he had been hired originally to tail her husband and merely confirm that his lover was actually leaving town.

Not much action here — the murder is the only real violence, in fact, and that happened (offstage) a couple of years ago, but this slow burn masterpiece gets under your skin anyway. It’s an oddly-affecting whirl of stream-of-consciousness prose, the whole book taking place entirely within the course of a single day, as Webb broods, reminisces and obsesses over the past, while looking forward to the day that Sarah is released. Instead of collapsing under such pretensions, however, the novel actually works, and amazingly well.

Several critics have praised its warm, conversational tone, somewhat akin to a good kitchen chat. The echoes of Hammett’s masterwork are undeniable (and just about have to be intentional), but merely the icing on the cake for P.I. buffs. It’s the rare book that really lifts the lid and gives you a real view of the works, but this is one of them.

Swift, of course, is the author of such modern — but quite popular — literary classics as Waterland, Out of This World and the Booker Prize-winning Last Orders.


  • “Two years ago and a little more. October still, but a day like today, blue and clear and crisp. Rita opened my door and said, “Mrs. Nash.”
    I was already on my feet, buttoning my jacket. Most of them have no comparisons to go on — it’s their first time. It must feel like coming to a doctor. They expected something shabbier, seedier, more shaming. The tidy atmosphere, Rita’s doing, surprises and reassures them. And the vase of flowers.
    White chrysanthemums, I recall.
    “Mrs. Nash, please have a seat.”
    I could be some high-street solicitor. A fountain-pen in my fingers. Doctor, solicitor — marriage guidance counsellor. You have to be a bit of all three.
    The usual look of plucked-up courage, swallowed-back hesitation, of being somewhere they’d rather not be.
    “My husband is seeing another woman.”
    — George recalls when he first met Sarah
  • “In recent years… I’d learnt to cook, discovered, in fact, a bit of a flair. I take trouble. I chop and mix. I look up recipes, I’m choosy about ingredients. I stop at the Fine Foods section, even when I’m shopping for basics.
    And food counts, I’ll bear that out. In times of trouble, eat well, don’t skimp. Look after yourself. Don’t live out of the microwave. Use love and care. Just because you’re on your own.
    I’ll vouch for it, I’ve been there…”
    — George explains the importance of food.
  • “Peace? Excitement? What’s civilization for? Matrimonial work: that’s my game. It’s not always nice but I’m not the Red Cross. and in my time of doing matrimonial work I’ve seen quite a few couples who’ve come to grief, who’ve gone to war, for no other reason, so far as I can see, than that over the years of being safe and steady and settled, something’s got lost, something’s gone missing, they’ve got bored.”
    — Ah. Love…
  • “And anyway (trust a detective) people don’t always look like they look.”


  • “… a luminous and gripping tale of love, murder and redemption…. Intimate and intricate in its evocation of daily existence, The Light of Day achieves a singular intensity and almost unbearable suspense. Tender and humorous in its depiction of life’s surface, Swift explores the depths and extremities of what lies within us and how, for better or worse, it’s never too late to discover what they are.”
    — the blurb
  • “The novel’s strength is indeed its structure: it is based not on chronology but as if on a sort of emotional resonance, with Webb’s thoughts and preoccupations providing the novel with a depth not normally found in traditional detective novels.”
    — Michael Ferch,
  • The Light of Day is as close to seeming spoken as any novel I have read. It dares the ordinariness of flat, repetitious, unliterate narration… Swift’s dare is worth the risks, however. The book’s pleasures, slowly coddled, take time to mature, but in the process they teach you the art of reading slowly and carefully, of maturing with the story.”
    — James Wood, London Review of Books



  • They Wrote What?
    Famous Writers Who Have Dipped Their Toes in the P.I. Pool
  • One and Done
    Some Great Private Eyes Who’ve Appeared in Only One Novel
Report respectfully submitted by Kevin Burton Smith.

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