Written by Phil Hogan — When you read a lot of crime fiction every month, you can become not exactly immune to the sense of horror, but at least a little desensitised. Let’s just say you don’t tend to jump at every creak in the house at night. Yet every now and then you come across a book which unsettles you, a book which pulls off creepiness without any overt displays of violence, a book that is quietly yet powerfully menacing. A Pleasure and a Calling is just such a book.
Mr Heming is your friendly neighbourhood estate agent in a leafy town in the Home Counties of England. He sold you the house you currently live in and he will probably sell it for you when the time comes to move on, and help you find your new property in the region. He likes to establish long-term relationships with his clients – extremely long-term. Because he will hang onto your keys, spy on you, find out everything there is to know about your home life. He may even intervene a bit to make sure your life is going… well… the way he feels it should be going. He keeps a low profile, but he feels responsible for his little community. He sees himself as a concerned model citizen – and sometimes, that requires a little murder and subterfuge.
The set-up of the novel may be implausible – after all, how many people do not change their locks immediately once they buy a new house? However, once you accept this initial premise, the rest of the novel is genuinely suspenseful but also full of brilliant comic timing. We realise at once that William Heming is not quite what he seems, but his self-justification and easy narrative style lulls us into a sense of comfort. Besides, sometimes he is the genuine concerned citizen, taking the side of the underdog, so we may find ourselves cheering him on. Then, through flashbacks to his childhood and school years, it is gradually revealed that he is not merely a sneaky voyeur, but something much more frightening.
Yet even a sociopath has his moment of weakness. Heming reveals his weak spot when he becomes obsessed with Abigail, a young librarian who is involved with the unsympathetic philanderer Douglas Sharp. He starts plotting and scheming to get to know Abigail better, and to denigrate Sharp in her eyes. Despite his extensive planning, things go wrong. Heming falls victim to his own nosiness and desire to play God. As a result of a misunderstanding, he finds himself killing a man and he soon embarks on a helter skelter ride of wild improvisation in an effort to preserve his own carefully constructed reputation. Bodies, alibis and scapegoats soon mount up and we read on breathlessly. How can Heming possibly get away with it?
We are also torn between revulsion and brief moments of pity for the main character. Phil Hogan certainly does a great job of conferring depth and back story. Not since Tom Ripley or Count Fosco in The Woman in White have I been as fascinated and horrified simultaneously by a villain as I was by Mr Heming. Inevitably, all the other characters seem a little dull in comparison, although Douglas Sharp comes a close second for lack of scruples.
Sinister, yet also full of satire, black humour and real sadness, at under 300 pages A Pleasure and a Calling packs a lot into its slim frame. It comes out on 27 February.
CFL Rating: 5 Stars