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A Pleasure and a Calling


A Pleasure and a Calling

Phil Hogan, as his biographical information is quick to tell us, was born in a small town in northern England and now lives in a small town in southern England. I’m sure that one or both of these towns at least in some way resembles the small English village where Mr. William Heming, Hogan’s creation, lives and works, and where a great deal of A PLEASURE AND A CALLING is set. It seems like a peaceful enough place, at least initially, but read this first-rate debut novel before you decide to pull up stakes, as it were, and begin making arrangements.

Mr. Heming, not to put too fine a line on it, is a piece of work and isn’t entirely right. He has any number of issues, all of which are revealed slowly and in piecemeal during the course of the book. Chief among these is that he simply loves going through peoples’ homes and belongings (particularly the latter) when they’re not around. It’s not that he’s unaware of privacy boundaries, he simply doesn’t respect them. They are fences to be conquered --- by going over, under, around or through them.

"After reading A PLEASURE AND A CALLING, you will never release your house keys to anyone without thinking about Mr. Heming and his hobbies. Not that you would ever forget this stark, understated novel in any event."

The first-person narrative, which bounces between the past and present, demonstrates this. Mr. Heming’s childhood was spent entering rooms, opening drawers, going through closets, and frequently taking inconsequential trinkets as souvenirs. He did some other things, too, which are slowly revealed as the layers of his personality and history are unpeeled. Even a sinner’s prayers are often answered.

After a somewhat tragic childhood that culminated in his being summarily dismissed from an exclusive private school, Mr. Heming finds himself employed as a glorified gofer at Mower & Mower, a real estate agency, and feels as if he has died and gone to heaven. He sees possibilities that he has only dreamed of, the keys to the kingdom practically within reach, if one defines “kingdom” as the homes of others and the personal possessions therein. Actually, he doesn’t even have to reach for them. People give real estate agents the keys to their homes. This is one job he does not want to lose.

Thus Mr. Heming puts his head down and moves forward, ever forward in the agency, working his way up the ladder until he becomes indispensable, acquiring copies of keys along the way. By the time the elderly Mr. Mower retires and Mr. Heming buys him out, our lad has built quite the reputation as the go-to realtor in the small English town where the agency is based. He lives frugally and simply loves his work, and understandably so.

Mr. Heming has an Achilles’ heel, though: he is extremely --- what term do we want here? --- obsessive-compulsive. So it is that when a particular young woman catches his eye --- one who is involved in a relationship with one of his many voyeuristic targets --- he gets a bit careless and finds himself near, if not in, the crosshairs of a police investigation. Then things get worse for him. The reader is so engrossed in the tale that the question of how this very twisted gentleman --- and we really have no idea for a good portion of the book how truly twisted he is --- has come to gain our sympathies and, worse, our support. It is at this point that one comes to realize how truly good a writer Hogan is.

Comparisons between Mr. Heming and Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley are inevitable. Even the publisher acknowledges this on the front flyleaf. But Hogan injects drops and dollops of creepiness into the proceedings at irregular intervals. The more one learns about Mr. Heming’s past, the more one understands about his present. William Wordsworth said, “The child is father of the Man”; just so. After reading A PLEASURE AND A CALLING, you will never release your house keys to anyone without thinking about Mr. Heming and his hobbies. Not that you would ever forget this stark, understated novel in any event.

Reviewed by Joe Hartlaub on January 16, 2015

A Pleasure and a Calling
by Phil Hogan