It’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.