Special Contributor

Published: 02 January 2015 12:14 PM

Real estate is an obsession for many people, as millions of HGTV viewers can testify. Normally, we think of it as a benign sort of obsession, and we think of our real estate agents as a benign sort, too.

Unless your agent is William Heming. In which case, think again.

In Phil Hogan’s new novel, A Pleasure and a Calling, Heming is what the Brits call an estate agent, one who takes a deep interest in his clients’ lives. This, he confides, is “the job from heaven.”

With each new client, he makes a copy of the house key and keeps it. He has hundreds of keys arrayed like trophies on the wall of his own house, which no one ever visits. Then, whenever he pleases, he lets himself into a client’s house and becomes intimately acquainted with every aspect of their lives. It is more than a game to him. It is a thrill, an intoxicant, a mini-vacation that allows him to feel fully alive.

“Here, among strangers’ belongings, is where I am most at home, moving quietly and surely,” Heming muses. “I know where they keep their private things, how they arrange their lives. I follow their plans and make mine around them. … I will eat or drink something, perhaps take a small keepsake — a teaspoon, a sock. But … I am not a stalker, or a voyeur. I am simply sharing an experience, a life as it happens.

“Think of me as an invisible brother or uncle or boyfriend. I’m no trouble.” In fact, Heming considers himself to be “a ministering angel” who is “more than happy to change a lightbulb or rewire a hazardous plug, or sort out a dangerous boiler.”

At times he can be an avenging angel as well, as when he spots a wealthy former client clipping the side mirror from an old-age pensioner’s parked small car, then fleeing the scene in his “behemoth” SUV. Heming plays good Samaritan and anonymously replaces the mirror for the old lady. Then he proceeds to make the malfeasant SUV owner’s life a merry hell, replete with breaking shoelaces, popping buttons, missing Rolexes, leaking pipes and the arrival of an amazing array of expensive merchandise that no one has ordered.

If Heming’s mischief ended there, he would be merely amusing. However, he slowly reveals that his hobby springs from the dark grounds of his childhood, when he was “an invisible boy” who enjoyed watching people, and sometimes manipulating them, as if they were his personal set of puppets.

“I hadn’t much of significance to say to my fellow pupils, and vice versa,” Heming recalls. Yet he “winkled out their secrets — their family nicknames, who among them had had an appendix or tonsils out, who was going skiing that winter. … I filled a spiral notebook with my findings and conjectures (Tomerton was gay, I surmised; Faulkes’s stammer was the product of torture as a child), spilling into two notebooks, which became three, four, five and more as my enterprise gathered weight. I kept their lives, all of them — the weaklings, the bullies, the dolts, the young Mozarts and Einsteins — locked in my chest.”

Hemings’ secret life takes an unexpectedly dangerous turn when he becomes fascinated by a young woman who is having an affair with a charming cad of a married man. Once he acquires her key, or rather the key she had given to her lover, he moves into her attic for five days and spends his nights there in “a career first. I ate, drank, dreamed and breathed her. She was that newest drug, that highest ledge, the rarest butterfly, all in one.” Now he is indeed a stalker, a man obsessed who must evade not only the law but also the one person who, it turns out, is nearly as diabolically clever as he.

A Pleasure and a Calling starts out slowly, meticulously building the first-person portrait of a sociopath. But, 70 pages in, the novel takes a sharp turn into Patricia Highsmith country, and the deliberately bland, purposely forgettable Heming stands revealed as Tom Ripley with a real estate license.

Author Phil Hogan is a veteran journalist and critic, and this is his first book to be published in the United States. Here’s hoping for more to come.

Joyce Sáenz Harris is a Dallas freelance writer.

A Pleasure and a Calling

Phil Hogan

(Picador, $25)