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Book Review: A Pleasure and a Calling

By (January 12, 2015) 3 Comments

pleasure and calling coverA Pleasure and a Calling

by Phil Hogan

Picador, 2015

The narrator of Phil Hogan’s new novel A Pleasure and a Calling is William Heming, a mild-mannered, unassuming real estate agent in a small, quiet English village, where he affably shows properties to crass, distracted buyers and sellers who pay him no more specific attention than they would to a taxi driver or a grocery sacker. His job is to show houses to potential buyers, close deals, and then fade into the background and move on to the next transaction.

But Heming himself pays scrupulously specific attention, not just to his clients but, as Hogan’s engaging narrative makes clear early on, to everything:

My habit is to take arbitrary diversions. I move like a window-shopper. My antennae are alert to unusual sales clusters, incursions from rival agents. I take the trouble to read the fluttering notices pinned to fences and telegraph poles warning of private building projects or public works. I notice what scaffolding is going up, contractors’ vehicles, the content of skips. The smell of fresh paint puts a spring in my step. I can spot the red dot of a newly installed alarm from a good distance. Occasionally I make use of my opera glasses (an indispensable tool of the equipped agent). But, as I make my rounds, I ask myself: who fits where? In seventeen years in in the business, I have sold properties on every street in town, very often more than once. I might forget a face but, I have to tell you, I never forget a house.

The proprietary tone of making a policeman-style ’rounds’ is pointed: over the years providing homes for the townsfolk, he’s come to see himself as their silent guardian, overseeing their lives in minute and fussy detail. This conception of himself is immeasurably aided by the central (and centrally impossible, although we’re not supposed to question that part but rather tuck it under the one-size-fits-all tarp of “the English are peculiar”) gimmick of Hogan’s tale: Heming is obsessed with those fussy details, and he’s kept a copy of every house key he’s ever handed to proud new owners. He keeps hundreds, thousands of keys hanging on the walls of his own home, each one carefully tagged and annotated, and he uses these keys to let himself into all the houses in town. He wanders around these houses while their owners are out; he sniffs their still-warm sheets; he flips through their ignored books; he samples their food. While they’re off working at their jobs or taking their vacations, he’s studying with unblinking eyes the snapshots they have pinned to their refrigerators.

It’s a very good, very creepy premise, and Hogan complicates it with a steady, increasing clamminess, escalating matters from mild vigilantism to murder. The publishing-industry ad folks who compare this book to the novels of Patricia Highsmith are to be congratulated, one supposes, for such industrious early-day drinking; in fact, the book could do with a good deal more of the old Highsmith rhetorical rigor – the main drawbacks to what would otherwise be a standout thriller here are two things Ripley’s creator tried always to attend to: the characters (other than Heming) are one-dimensional, and the writing is far too often lazy. The book’s very first page has “if you put a gun to my head” and “cheek by jowl,” and it features a paragraph like this one, which scores points for skillful adumbration but then loses them with “dead to the world” and “raging inferno”:

The air is dangerously thin. It seems to rush in my ears. And yet the scene is peaceful here in the half-lit, slumbering pre-dawn: a white coverlet glowing in the room, a discarded necklace of beads, a shelf of books, one face down, splayed on the bedside table, as though it – like the whole town at this hushed time – is dead to the world. I cannot make out the title but the sight of this book with its familiar cover image (the shape of a man in raised gilt) returns me to that day, not too long ago, when the wind changed and the sky blackened and ordinary life – startled by the sudden thunderclap of the unusual – rear, kicked over the lantern and turned the barn into a raging inferno whose leaping, thrilling flames could be seen from a hundred miles away.

The idea of a silent lurker in our most private places has a very effective sticking power, and there’s hardly a chapter of A Pleasure and a Calling where it isn’t possible to wish the prose lived up to the premise.