William Heming, the first person narrator of Phil Hogan’s engrossing novel “A Pleasure and A Calling,” likes to observe his neighbors. You might say it’s his avocation, and his habit supports his vocation, which is real estate. The thing is, it’s entirely possible that causation runs the other way, and that Mr. Heming has devoted his life to real estate in order to satisfy his urge for close observation. Call it spying, though Mr. Heming is much too polite to resort to such a coarse word, no matter how apt.
Mr. Heming is a real estate broker in a rural bedroom community, too far out to be called a suburb of London, yet close enough for a commute to work to be possible. The novel opens with the appearance of a week-old dead body in the garden of a house Mr. Heming is hoping to sell. From there things move backwards and forwards in time, Mr. Heming telling us how he fell in love, from a distance, with Abigail, a young librarian and why the body is in the garden (it is not giving away too much to acknowledge that yes, he knows).
Mr. Heming has sold many of the houses in his small town, and fairly early on he discloses an unusual collection: keys. Copies of keys to every house he has ever shown.He knows a great deal about many of the town’s houses and real estate developments, having, over the course of his career, sold many of them. He’s also participated in some of the development, and has a fairly substantial sum of money tucked away. During the course of the novel, his knowledge of his neighbors becomes abundantly clear. Mr. Heming’s justification as he uses those keys – they are central to his life of observation – is compelling and persuasive even as it repels.
Hogan brings the reader happily along as Mr. Heming’s behavior, while lucid, becomes weirder and more frightening. The writing and the tone of this extraordinary novel are reserved yet compelling and extremely effective at drawing in the reader. In certain moments, Heming knows he’s weird, and in others he almost frightens himself. Mr. Heming’s lucidity and the detail with which he describes the happy hours he spends tucked away in Abigail’s house, while she cooks and eats and sleeps below, are Mr. Hogan at his best, and Mr. Heming his happiest. Of course things fall apart, and Heming backpedals, loses his cool, panics but never quite loses his head. Several others, including Zoe, one of the agents in Mr. Heming’s office, pay for Heming’s acts with their lives.
“A Pleasure and A Calling” is compulsively readable with a main character who should be repellent yet who is compelling and sympathetic despite his probable commission of any number of murders. How many did you count? Let us know in the comments.
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