A Pleasure and a Calling (27 February 2014) by Phil Hogan
William Heming is an estate agent in a pleasant, leafy and very middle-class English town. He is an unassuming man whom nobody notices - he is charming but forgettable, a consummate salesman who specialises in finding his customers their dream homes and then quietly slipping back into the shadows, unremembered. And that's exactly the way he likes it, because he has a secret: he has kept a set of keys for every property he has ever dealt with. A Pleasure and a Calling opens as the running of Heming's business is interrupted by the discovery of a body in the garden of a house he's trying to sell, one belonging to a particularly difficult client. From there, the story unfolds in a non-linear order as Heming reflects on the events directly preceding this incident, but also allows his memory to wander further back.
Phil Hogan's novel is disturbing in a gentle way, if such a thing is possible. Heming acts as the quintessential unreliable narrator, consistently bland and even flippant about his many indiscretions. The story flips back and forth, covering key incidents in his youth alongside the present day, in which he has risen to become the owner of his own property agency; so we learn of his role in the disappearance of two children when he was a boy, and an attack on a classmate at boarding school, as well as his current life, in which discreetly invading others' homes has become a routine activity. The plot threatens to falter when Heming develops an infatuation with Sharp's mistress, and for a while I thought it was going to go in a rather stupid direction, but Hogan cleverly brings this back around and folds it into Heming's untrustworthy, malleable and very particular nature.
I liked almost everything about this book but, if I had to be critical of anything, it would be that it doesn't go far enough. It's not that I want to read graphic scenes of violence, but the mild tone of Heming's narrative voice makes everything feel a bit tame, even when he's sleeping in his stalkee's attic and/or killing people. I've read reviews of this that have called it frightening or even terrifying - and I can certainly understand why someone would think that given some of the things that happen - but it wasn't my experience of the book. In fact, it didn't even send a chill down my spine (though that isn't to say I didn't think it was effective). Ultimately, it's hard to shake the feeling that the deliberately opaque characterisation of Heming is the very thing that makes this story less memorable than it should be.
This is a unique and intriguing book which captured my imagination and has made me very curious about what the author will do next. It's a must-read for fans of unreliable narrator tales and has plenty to make you think, twisting and turning as it makes the reader complicit in Heming's crimes. (Incidentally, not that it really matters, but I absolutely love the cover design too - not only is it elegant, but it also fits the story perfectly.)
You may not always remember Mr Heming, but it's worth keeping him in mind until February next year, at least.
I received an advance review copy of A Pleasure and a Calling from the publisher through NetGalley.
Rating: 8/10 | Twitter | Goodreads | Booklikes | Bloglovin' | Pre-order on Amazon: Kindle & Hardback