Today I Saw Somebody Who Looked Just Like You*

ImpersonationIt’s surprising how little attention we sometimes pay to other people – even people we know. That’s why impersonation can sometimes be quite successful. An impersonator who learns to mimic someone’s basic appearance, mannerisms and the like can often get away with living that other life for quite some time. Impersonation can be a really interesting plot point in a crime fiction novel, too. It allows for an interesting plot twist when the impersonation is revealed. It also allows for some fascinating backstory (Who is the impersonator? Why does s/he agree (or plan) to impersonate?). And it allows for character development.

On the other hand, impersonation can be contrived if it’s not done credibly. It’s an all-too-convenient device to fill up a ‘plothole,’ too. So the author has to handle the plot point carefully. But that said, it can be an interesting thread in a novel.

For instance, in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Copper Beeches, Sherlock Holmes gets a visit from Violet Hunter. She’s been offered a job as governess to Jephro Rucastle’s six-year-old son. She’s not sure if she should accept the offer and asks for Holmes’ advice. He has some serious doubts about the job, especially when she tells him some of the unusual things that Rucastle has asked of her. At first she listens to Holmes’ counsel and refuses the position. But when Rucastle increases the salary offer, she can no longer resist, and she takes the job. As it turns out, the Rucastle home is hiding some strange and unhappy secrets, and by the time Violet Hunter realises even a bit of what’s going on, she is in real danger. She writes to Holmes asking him to come, and he and Watson oblige – just in time to save her life. Impersonation plays an important part in this story, and once Holmes deduces its role, he’s able to find out the truth about Copper Beeches.

Several of Agatha Christie’s novels and short stories feature impersonation. One of those stories is Jane in Search of a Job. Jane Cleveland is out of work and her financial situation is getting more and more serious. The she sees an odd advertisement in The Daily Leader. The notice gives very particular requirements for physical description and insists that the applicant be able to speak French. Conscious that this could be dangerous, but at the same time desperate for a job, Jane goes to the address mentioned in the notice. After a thorough ‘vetting,’ she’s offered the job, and told that she will be acting as a ‘double’ for the Grand Duchess Pauline. Pauline tells Jane there have been rumours that a group of terrorists is going to try to kidnap her, and Jane’s role will be to impersonate the Grand Duchess at public events until the threat is over. Jane takes the job and when she is kidnapped, she learns that very little is really what it seems. Want another take on this story? Check out this post at Clothes in Books. And while you’re there, consider following that excellent blog if you’re not already doing so. It’s a terrific resource for discussions about how clothes figure into our personalities, our lives, and novels.

Josephine Tey’s Brat Farrar also features a character who agrees to be paid to impersonate someone else. In that novel, we meet the various members of the Ashby family, a once-proud ‘better’ family that’s come upon very hard times. But for twenty-year-old Simon Ashby, things will change on his twenty-first birthday. He’s slated to come into a fortune left to him by his mother. He’ll also get the land and the Ashby title. Into this family situation comes Brat Farrar, a down-on-his-luck American who’s come to England to start over. One day he’s approached by out-of-work actor Alec Loding, who has mistaken Farrar for Simon Ashby. That striking resemblance gives Loding an idea. He knows the Ashby family and its history very, very well, and decides to use that information. The plan is for Farrar to impersonate Simon Ashby’s twin brother Patrick, who everyone thought committed suicide by drowning years earlier. Since Patrick was slightly older than Simon, if Farrar can pull this off, he’ll get the fortune, the title and the land. In return for helping him, Loding wants a share of the money. Farrar agrees, and Loding spends a few weeks coaching the young man in his part. They even figure out a plausible tale for Patrick Ashby’s long absence. At first all goes well enough, but Ferrar soon learns that he is in great danger. It seems that Patrick Ashby did not commit suicide, as everyone had thought. Instead, he was murdered. Now the same person wants to try again…

In Tony Hillerman’s The Ghostway, Navajo Tribal Police Sergeant Jim Chee is on the trail of the person who killed Albert Gorman. Gorman was a Los Angeles Navajo who’d recently moved to the Reservation. When his body is discovered not far from the home of one of his kinsmen, Chee starts to follow the trail. It takes him to Los Angeles, where he discovers a connection to a dangerous car theft ring. That trip gives Chee some vital information he needs to solve the case and tie it in with the disappearance of a teenage girl who is distant kin to Gorman. In the process of solving the case, Chee finds out that one of the people he’s been talking to about it is an impersonator. That person has taken on another identity to move the killer’s plan forward. Once Chee makes that discovery, he’s able to put the pieces of the puzzle together.

Tana French’s The Likeness offers a different kind of twist on the impersonation plot point. In that novel, Dublin detective Cassie Maddox has recently returned to the Murder Squad after taking some time away. One day she’s called to a very unusual crime scene. A young woman has been stabbed in an abandoned house not far from Trinity College. What’s especially eerie is that the woman is identified as Alexandra ‘Lexie’ Madison, an alias that Maddox used once in an undercover operation. The victim looks very much like Maddox, too. Now there are two questions: who killed the victim, and who was the victim? Since there never really was a Lexie Madison, the victim has to have been someone else. A reluctant Maddox is persuaded to impersonate the victim, using the cover story that she survived the stabbing attack. As ‘Lexie Madison,’ Maddox will move back into the house that the victim shared with four other people, and try to find out who killed her. As time goes on and Maddox continues to live as the other woman, she gets more and more drawn into the lives of the small group of people who share the house. In the end, we do find out the truth about ‘Lexie Madison,’ but not before Maddox comes close to losing herself.

The impersonation plot point isn’t easy to pull off successfully. But it can add a strong layer of tension and interest to a story. Do you ‘buy’ that plot thread?


Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration!




*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Thom Bell and Linda Creed’s You Are Everything, made famous by The Stylistics.


Filed under Agatha Christie, Arthur Conan Doyle, Josephine Tey, Tana French, Tony Hillerman

26 responses to “Today I Saw Somebody Who Looked Just Like You*

  1. Margot, it has been so long since I have read Brat Farrar. I have to read it again. I did see the excellent post at Clothes in Books about impersonation. Sometimes I can believe in it, sometimes not. But people are usually very unobservant. And accepting of what they are told.

    • Tracy – I’m with you on the impersonation plot point. Sometimes I ‘buy’ it. Sometimes I don’t. It’s got to be done effectively, that’s for sure. And I agree; that post on Clothes in Books is excellent. And as for Brat Farrar? I think Tey’s work is usually worth a re-read.

  2. Margot, I have two titles to contribute to this discussion.

    The first is “The Crooked Hinge,” by John Dickson Carr (writing as Carter Dickson). 25 years before the time of the novel, a young man, John Farnleigh, was exiled to America by his parents. He sailed on the Titanic, along with his tutor. Somehow, he survived that disaster. Later, he inherited his title and estate, after the death of an elder brother. He returned to England, married a childhood sweetheart, and took over the estate.
    Now, many years later, another man has turned up who claims to be the read John Farnleigh. He says that, as boys, the two exchanged their identities – indeed, their lives – on board the Titanic.
    So which is the real John Farnleigh? In a Carr book, very little is really as it appears…

    I’d also like to mention a situation that really is the opposite of the impersonator mystery, as with the Tana French book you site. In Catherine Aird’s excellent “Henrietta Who?” a woman named Grace Jenkins is struck and killed in a hit-and-run accident on a lonely road in an English village. Her daughter, Henrietta, comes home from college. Sounds like a minor domestic tragedy – until some very peculiar facts come to life. It seems that Grace Jenkins never had children. In fact, it will quickly become apparent that nobody seems to have known very much about her. And that the accident which killed her was no accident. And Henrietta is faced with the sudden realization that she has no idea who she herself really is. It is, as you might expect, gut-wrenching, and it’s one of my favorites by Aird.

    • Correction to myself: “The Crooked Hinge” is Carr writing as Carr. A Gideon Fell mystery. I need a rest…

    • Les – Oh, those are both excellent examples of the way impersonations can play roles in novels. And I’m very glad you reminded me of the talented Catherine Aird. I must re-visit her work and I really must spotlight one of her novels. Thanks. And your mention of The Crooked Hinge reminds me of an Agatha Christie novel that features two characters exchanging identities. No spoilers, but that whole notion of exchanging identities is really a fascinating topic in and of itself.

  3. Great theme Margot – in books this usually works a lot better than it does on film or TV (for obvious reasons) and I think Patricia Highsmith was particularly adept at exploring reasons why people might want to take on another persona or even someone else’s whole life.

    • Sergio – Thanks very much. You’re right of course that it would be quite difficult to pull off a credible impersonation on in a TV or film setting. It can be done convincingly in a book though, and yes, Highsmith is skilled at showing why people would want to impersonate.

  4. Thanks Margot, I’m very honoured. And you mention a couple more of my favourite impersonation stories. And I agree with Les – Crooked Hinge is a really brilliant book, with a spooky atmosphere and a very clever plot. I have read a couple of books in which two characters, who have seemed quite separate, turn out to the be the same person at the end – I love that, I think it’s so clever, though of course impossible to do on TV or film. There’s also a Christianna Brand mystery with a very neat bit of impersonation – can’t say more!

    • Moira – It’s my pleasure to mention your blog, and I do as ever appreciate the inspiration. I thought of that Christianna Brand too, but for the same reason you didn’t, I didn’t want to say anything about it. But yes, quite inspired. And it is interesting when an author can make you believe that two characters are distinct when they aren’t. And now you’re making me want to go back and re-visit The Crooked HInge..

  5. kathy d.

    I really liked The Likeness and was fascinated by it and the protagonist who assumes the identity of a woman who had died — the question was how and at whose hand? However, at the end, the folks who lived with her knew the character wasn’t the dead student, but they went along with the guise for their own reasons.
    I have not come across this often, but the book mentioned above Henrietta Who sounds quite intriguing so I’ll add it to the endless TBR mountain.

    • Kathy – You’re right that French certainly takes an innovative approach to the whole notion of impersonation. And it’s interesting on a psychological level too.
      And I hope that if you read Henrietta Who?, that you’ll enjoy it.

  6. I love that Stylistics song…it is now going round and round in my head 🙂

  7. I would buy it Margot because I do see similarities in people. But it has to be carefully done. Racial sterotyping along the lines of ‘all chinese look the same’ can be found in older crime fiction so it has to avoid those cliches.

    • Sarah – I think you’re quite right. And now you’re making me think of an Agatha Christie story where that sort of ‘they all look alike’ mentality allows for an impersonation. It does, as you say, have to be done carefully. I think too that there has to be a convincing motive.

  8. It’s a plot point that often leads me to feel my credibility is being stretched to, or even beyond, breaking point. There is an impersonation element to Nicci French’s Blue Monday, and while I really enjoyed the book overall, that aspect just didn’t ring true.

    • FictionFan – I know what you mean. Sometimes it works well in a plot, but when it’s not handled carefully, it’s far too contrived and stretches my credibility as you say. I understand your point about Blue Monday in that regard.

  9. I do think that impersonation is tough to pull off. Agatha Christie did it beautifully in several of her books (won’t name the ones I’m thinking of since I think I’d make for spoilers). Impersonation can be dangerous in mysteries…or can be a way to try and get away with murder.

    • Elizabeth – You put that well. It’s tough to pull off, but can be so effective if done well. It is a useful tool, too, as you say. And yes, Christie did that very well in those stories…

  10. Margot – I love impersonations in mysteries! My favorite is – without spoiling too much – one used by Dame Agatha in which a certain murderer users impersonation to frame … well, a most unlikely suspect.
    And, echoing FictionFan’s comments, in this particular novel the plot may severely tax credibility but oh, how clever and entertaining.

    • Bryan – If I could have thought of a way to discuss that Agatha Christie novel without giving it away, I would. It’s a brilliant example of impersonation well-used. As you say, it can be terrific. It’s easy to stretch credibility too far, but yes, it’s a neat tool.

  11. THE LIKENESS if the one TF book that didn’t work for me. I never bought that someone could fool close friends with an impersonation. And since it was so much the essence of the book, I felt it failed. Love the other books though.

    • Patti – I know The Likeness isn’t your favourite of French’s work. And it is an interesting question whether that group would really be taken in by that impersonation. It’s actually a very important question as you say, and believing they could is central to the novel. If one doesn’t ‘buy’ it, as you don’t, then the book doesn’t work.

  12. Col

    Have you read Hjortsberg’s Falling Angel? I thought this was fantastic, plus the film with De Niro is excellent also. A couple of impersonators here.

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