A Pleasure and A Calling By Phil Hogan
Have you ever sold a house?
Okay, take a moment and picture…a real estate agent. Usually very likable people, right? Most likely you envision something like this: a nice face, a pleasant laugh, a knowledgable and friendly persona. A perfectly normal human being, present in the periphery of your life during the few times you buy or sell a home.
Now peel back that innocuous outer layer of your agent’s face, and replace the congenial visage with a chilling, dead-eyed mask. The friendliness is transformed to calculating judgement, the human warmth reconstituted into a sick, sharp, obsessive madness. Picture this new creature hovering just out of sight, watching you while you’re unaware, laser-focused on your smallest movement, greedily recording the minutiae of your life for later consumption. He or she flicks idly through your things without your knowledge, stopping to delve further when finding something of interest, devouring both your secrets and your most trivial private actions with satisfaction.
Now you’ve got some idea of the psyche of William Heming. He’s the proprietor of an estate agency in a quaint London suburb, and he has kept copies of the keys to every house he’s ever sold. They line the walls of his apartment, thousands of glittering talismans, portals to his secret visits to his former clients’ homes. On the surface, he is bland and banal and forgettable, possessed of that droll British sense of respectability. On the inside, he is a straight-up sociopath.
The book is narrated in the first person through Mr. Heming’s eyes, and bit by bit, he ever-so-nonchalantly reveals the magnitude of his creepiness. I continually found myself thinking Wait, he did WHAT? He recounts his voyeurism in such a calm voice that you may be several sentences into an appalling passage before you fully realize what he’s done. He has the same dry composure when recalling his childhood, subtly adding a few pixels at a time to the image of his damaged soul, until suddenly, the full and heart-wrenching picture is complete. (What could be so horrifying about a ‘mothering cat?’ What could a child possibly do to lose the love of the adults in his life? You’ll have to read it—thoughtfully—to find out.)
Mr. Heming’s own existence becomes the focus of attention after his fantasy life and his real life intersect as he stalks an attractive young woman named Abigail, who is dating a piggish married man. Suddenly, he’s on the radar screen of the police and his co-workers as his picturesque little community reels from the discovery of a dead body in a garden.
Will they uncover his secret?
I enjoyed this book—a lot—but must disclose that as a nerdy child, I read every single one of Agatha Christie’s crime novels. I loved the aura of early twentieth-century England, which seemed to me to be both distinctly recognizable and distinctly foreign. This novel is written with almost exactly the same old-fashioned voice; Mr. Heming would seem more at home stepping out of Downton Abbey or hanging out with Patricia Highsmith’s morally compromised Mr. Ripley than he does puttering around in the modern age with cell phones and computers. The more formal tone of the writing seems odd in the early chapters, but you quickly adjust. Fans of British thrillers will love this novel. Real estate agents—maybe not so much ;)