Cover image for A pleasure and a calling : a novel
A pleasure and a calling : a novel
Hogan, Phil, 1955- , author.
Publication Information:
[Place of publication not identified] : Picador Usa, 2015.
Physical Description:
283 pages ; 22 cm
A deliciously unsettling, darkly funny novel about a man who quietly spies on the private lives of his neighbors. You won't remember Mr. Heming. He was the estate agent who showed you around your comfortable home, suggested a financial package, negotiated a price with the owner, and called you with the good news. The less good news is that, all these years later, he still has the key. That's absurd, you laugh. Of all the many hundreds of houses he has sold, why would he still have the key to mine? The answer is; he has the keys to them all.
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FICTION Adult Fiction Popular Materials-Mystery
FICTION Adult Fiction-New 7-Day Item Open Shelf
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Mr. Heming loves the leafy English village where he lives. As a local real estate agent, he knows every square inch of the town and sees himself as its protector, diligent in enforcing its quaint charm. Most people don't pay much attention to Mr. Heming; he is someone who fades easily into the background. But Mr. Heming pays attention to them. You see, he has the keys to their homes. In fact, he has the keys to every home he's ever sold in town. Over the years, he has kept them all so that he can observe his neighbors, not just on the street, but behind locked doors.
      Mr. Heming considers himself a connoisseur of the private lives of others. He is witness to the minutiae of their daily lives, the objects they care about, the secrets they keep. As details emerge about a troubled childhood, Mr. Heming's disturbing hobby begins to form a clear pattern, and the reasons behind it come into focus. But when the quiet routine of the village is disrupted by strange occurrences, including a dead body found in the backyard of a client's home, Mr. Heming realizes it may only be a matter of time before his secrets are found out.      A brilliant portrait of one man's obsession, A Pleasure and a Calling is a darkly funny and utterly transfixing tale that will hold you under its spell.

Author Notes

PHIL HOGAN was born in a small town in northern England, and now lives in a small town in southern England. A journalist for twenty-five years, he has written for The Observer and The Guardian . He is married with four children.

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

*Starred Review* The premise is innocuous enough; William Heming is a real-estate agent who helps people buy and sell their homes in a small English town. But Heming keeps the keys to every property he has ever listed and snoops on all the occupants, and he is no ordinary Peeping Tom; he lies in wait for the residence to be unoccupied, and then moves in, however briefly, to enjoy the private space and smells, perusing mail, computers, refrigerators, and more. As he puts it, Among strangers' belongings is where I am most at home. In Hogan's hands, even that is acceptable. Slowly Heming's life unfurls in flashbacks, from early nightmarish childhood through sinister adulthood, and Hogan ups the creepiness a notch with each passing page in this totally engrossing story. When Heming takes it upon himself to serve justice, to right what he perceives as wrongs, we can't help but root for our hero until we discover he may be taking justice a bit too far, which really ratchets up the suspense. Yet somehow we keep hoping he will make his escape, while also hoping he will get caught, and that dichotomy proves simply delicious and addicting. William Heming joins the ranks of unforgettable, unreliable narrators in this gloriously creepy novel of psychological suspense.--Alesi, Stacy Copyright 2014 Booklist

Publisher's Weekly Review

British writer Hogan's fourth novel (after All This Will Be Yours) is a gripping psychological thriller that pegs out the creep-o-meter with its chilling, original plot. Mr. Heming is a real estate agent in an English village, very successful, very curious, and very dangerous. He has sold hundreds of houses in 17 years and has kept the keys to all of them. He uses the keys to enter homes and spy, obsessively and surreptitiously interjecting himself into the homeowners' lives, occasionally altering things for his own amusement, learning everything about each family: "I squeezed the juice out of them, though they didn't know it." Mr. Heming doesn't think of himself as a stalker or voyeur, and he doesn't consider himself a thief. He is, however, a man who will act decisively if threatened or even merely annoyed. His orderly life is suddenly complicated when he becomes smitten with Abigail Rice, a young woman to whom he sold a house. Abigail is involved with a philandering predator-a married man named Douglas Sharp, another one of Mr. Heming's clients. Mr. Heming decides that Sharp must be removed, and, with his customary thoroughness, the realtor decides to discredit Sharp, but his complex plan takes a deadly turn. Hogan's Mr. Heming is a monumentally diabolical character-the fact that he narrates the story further ups both the stakes and the tension. Readers won't soon forget this first-rate, white-knuckle suspense novel. (Jan.) © Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved.

Library Journal Review

An unsettling premise and a dose of perverse humor highlight this entertaining psychological mystery. Real estate agent Mr. Heming has sold hundreds of homes in his quaint English village and, with copies of keys he makes of each, he revisits them often, unbeknownst to the homeowners. His fetish appears harmless until an obsession with a particular young woman and a murder complicate things. Narrator Michael Page gives a brilliant delivery, lending Heming's twisted thoughts a sense of normality as experienced through his complacent nature. -VERDICT This compulsory tale will appeal to fans of psychological fiction in the vein of Patricia Highsmith and Ruth Rendell.-Phillip Oliver, Univ. of North Alabama Lib., Florence © Copyright 2015. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.



1. If you were to put a gun to my head and ask me to explain myself, I suppose I might begin by saying that we are all creatures of habit. But then, you might wonder, what creature of habit is a slave to the habits of others? All I can say is that the habitual is what I love most and am made for; that the best I can do is hang on, have faith, and hope what has lately blown through our unremarkable but well-ordered town will be forgotten and all will be calm again. Right now I feel lucky to hear myself breathe. 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 bedsidetable, 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 - reared, kicked over the lantern and turned the barn into a raging inferno whose leaping, thrilling flames could be seen from a hundred miles away. It was a day that started as quietly as this one. Another dawn - a dawn suffused with love, I am not afraid to say - though if I pause to mention the girl at the heart of things (or at least her habits) it is only to illustrate the contrast of events, how beauty and ugliness can live so surprisingly cheek by jowl, the one unseen by the other. How one moment you can be lying in the warm, ticking dark, awaiting the return of your special one (and here she was, arriving back from her early run, the rattle of her key in the lock, the sound of water thudding into a fragrant tub), and the next contemplating horror, drama and scandal. This is the route my memory instantly takes to capture that day, though the truth is I didn't hear the news until she had pedalled off into the crisp, bright morning, and I had walked to my office. The rest of our leafy, prosperous community will recall it in their own way. The point is that this was the day the Cooksons of Eastfield Lane returned from their annual spring break in the Seychelles to find a week-old dead body ruining the visual flow of their well-stocked garden with its established fruit trees, landscaped lawns and hand-cut limestone patio. Every estate agent has a client like the Cooksons, so don't judge me too harshly when I say I had to suppress a smile when my third in command, Zoe, her eyes wide with excitement and alarm, broke the news. We'd had the Cooksons' house - a handsome character property at the very edge of town, surrounded by fields and woods and yet only a ten-minute walk from the tennis and cricket club - on our books for eighteen months or more. In a falling market, my senior consultant Katya, an extremely efficient Lithuanian, had sold the place twice - to buyers desperate to own it but who had pulled out in acrimony and tears to take their depreciating financial packages elsewhere, reduced to an emotional frazzle by the Cooksons' failure over weeks and months to find a new ideal home for themselves, by their refusal to consider going into temporary rented accommodation to rescue these deals, and not least by their general destructive haggling over trifles. I'd lost count of the properties the Cooksons themselves had walked away from at the eleventh hour - upscale dwellings that ticked every box on an evolving wish list that had taken the three of us out to look at converted windmills and maltings, a superior Georgian townhouse on the square, a riverside apartment with long views and finished in oak and granite, a wool merchant's cottage with sizeable vegetable garden out towards Wodestringham. The paths of the couple's individual whims - hers, at any moment, for a circle of yews, his for an authentic chef's kitchen with wine cellar - rarely crossed. If one light went on, another went off. You saw them bickering quietly in their car. Once I heard Mrs Cookson refer to me as 'that fucking creep, Heming', which seemed a little severe, though in the circumstances - I was lurking in a recess on the landing directly below them as they stood disagreeing about the aesthetic merits of porthole-style windows - I suppose she was right. 'Do you think the Cooksons actually want to move house?' Katya said frequently. They probably do now, I thought. But who could tell? They'd been in the place sixteen years. Their children had flown. He was a dentist, she owned four pharmacies. Now in their mid-forties, and better off than ever, they seemed to me stranded between possible bad choices: not just between grandstanding and downsizing, but between staying in this marriage for the rest of their lives or breaking free of it. In their terse exchanges about décor or room size you saw a larger sense of purpose draining away. They were looking for something, but a new home together wasn't it. Rather, they seemed engaged in a passive war of attrition, with house-hunting as their chosen weapon. I didn't like the Cooksons one bit, but they did fascinate me. The last time I had seen them - or, in fact, failed to see them - was some months before their trip to the sun. I'd arranged to show them a new architect-built concrete jewel of a place with a gym and pool. I arrived a little early, checked the rooms, the automatic blinds and lighting. I ran through the blurb Katya had put together. Then I waited, pacing the rooms, pacing the drive. After twenty minutes I called Mr Cookson. He was playing golf. 'Are you sure it was today?' he said. I told him that, yes, today was the day, and paused to allow him to apologize. He didn't. 'To tell you the truth, I think my wife may have lost interest,' he said. Normally I wouldn't have minded too much being stood up. In other circumstances I would have used the time to snoop around the house while the vendors were out. But here there were no vendors, or at least none with real lives to look into. Just the usual developers in the habit of dressing their high-spec rooms in modish finery - a leather-and-chrome Corbusier chaise, a shagpile rug, deluxe drapery and linens. Nothing to suggest living, breathing occupancy or personal taste; no stamp of a human form shaping its nest. I locked up and walked. The wind was cold but it was dry. When time and weather permit, I walk. From our office - and Heming's is bang in the middle of the town map, on the north side of the old square - there's nowhere you can't get to on foot within half an hour. And what better way to sharpen the focus of everyday blur into readable information? 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 note what scaffolding is going up, contractors' vehicles, the contents 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 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. So, as I approached town, cutting down Boselle Avenue - broad and well-to-do, its pavements blown with leaves and horsechestnut flowers at this time of year - it was only natural that my eye would register a figure, some fifty yards ahead, emerging from number 4, one of a pair of thirties suburban villas set back from the road. I had handled both these houses in years past. Number 4 had been extended by way of an office-study-cum-box room over the garage. I knew the house. But I didn't recall the man. Or did I? He was walking a little dog, or, rather, yanking it along. Even at a distance, I sensed his impatience. He was a tall man, which made the poor dog - a terrier of some kind with white tufted hair - look even smaller than it was. He was wearing walking boots and hooded rainwear and his thinning hair was long and swept back. The dog was trying to sniff at gates and fences, and it yapped in protest as he tugged it away. He had the air of a man easily annoyed by life's fleeting trifles. As if compelled by the stiff wind, I found myself following him and the dog, across the main road, down the hill at the crossroads, then just past the archway and courtyard that my own modest flat overlooked, in a low-rise, honey-bricked development. And it was here, ahead of the entrance to the green, sparkling Common on the right, that he stopped to let the dog defecate in the middle of the path. The middle of the path. He barely gave me a glance as I approached. The dog crouched, watchful in mid-strain, then shook its bearded jowls and yawned. I expected the man to produce a bag to scoop up the mess, but he simply waited for the dog to finish, then pulled on the leash and started to walk on. 'Hello?' I heard myself call out to him. 'Excuse me . . .' The man - perhaps he was familiar - turned with a vexed look that seemed to call for the counter-balance of a civic smile and a jocular observation. 'Sorry,' I said, 'but I think your dog dropped something?' We both looked at the turd I was pointing at, a neat steaming coil that struck me as unusually large for a small dog. And then he stared at me. 'Well, what do you want to do about it?' 'What do I want to do? I rather thought you might want to do something about it.' I smiled again. 'Well, I do not, so piss off. And just mind your own business, you bourgeois knob.' He stared at me, lips apart, for a second more, then yanked the leash, and turned on to the path for the Common and park. I stood and watched, the dog once more protesting as they crossed the grass and headed down the steps and along the riverside path. He didn't look back. Bourgeois knob? I've always thought of myself rather as a concerned citizen - a model citizen. There was a thin piece of card to be found in a nearby refuse bin. I eased it beneath the pyramid of cooling sludge and transferred it into a discarded fastfood carton. This I carried back up the hill to the courtyard where my car was parked outside my flat. OK, I reasoned, this maniac had humiliated me, but so what? You could either burn with fury or you could do the right thing. I put the carton in the passenger-side footwell of my car, then nipped up to my flat to consult the files I keep there. It didn't take long. I'm very organized. It turned out we had sold the house to a Judith Bridgens in 2007. Perhaps she had resold to this rude oaf. I called the landline number I had on record. There was no answer. I drove up there and parked some way along Boselle Avenue, then strolled back down to number 4 with an armful of sales literature covering the carton. In the garden behind the high, overgrown privet, only a passer-by glancing over the gate would be likely to see me, and even then only for a second or two. I rang the bell and called the landline again. I heard the phone ringing inside. No one answered. I produced the key now from my waistcoat pocket, unlocked the door, waited, and then stepped over the threshold. Oh yes. I always enjoy the first moment of an empty house before the spell of its silence and stillness is broken by my own breathing and movement. I found my way to the kitchen and contemplated the clean oatmeal tiled floor. Would it do the job? Not quite. Perhaps the sitting room . . . I pushed open the door on to an airy space with tasteful dining area. French windows overlooked a patio and an uncut lawn and flower borders bedraggled by the weather and neglect. The owner was no gardener. He did, however, have an eye for attractive modern soft furnishings, not least a handsome, chunky, white - you might even say bourgeois - hearth-rug. There we are, I thought. I slid the turd, still improbably intact - like a novelty plastic one - into the rug's luxurious centre, pausing for a moment to appreciate its caramel perfection, its pleasingly vile aroma - freed now to explore this forbidden interior - rising to my nostrils. The dog would almost certainly sniff it out the moment it returned with its owner. 'Woof, woof, master! Look at this!' I made my retreat. Not least because of the disappointments of the morning, I would have liked to embark on a full tour of the house while I was there. Mostly, I would have loved to remain, in hiding, and see the shock and bafflement on the man's face when he returned. But I did have a business to run. I exited carefully, leaving a leaflet stuck in the letterbox. The wind had dropped, and with some satisfaction I retraced my steps up Boselle, posting leaflets also at the houses on the way back to the car, then drove back to my flat where I popped the key safely away. Sweet success. But, I hear you ask, with some scepticism (and with that gun to my head) . . . of all the many splendid houses you've sold in your seventeen years in the business, you just happened to have the key to that particular one? To which I would answer, of course not - I have the keys to them all. Excerpted from A Pleasure and a Calling by Phil Hogan All rights reserved by the original copyright owners. Excerpts are provided for display purposes only and may not be reproduced, reprinted or distributed without the written permission of the publisher.