Thursday, April 16, 2020

The Great Impersonation by E. Philips Oppenheim - #1920Club

Title: The Great Impersonation
Author:  E. Phillips Oppenheim
Publication: Little, Brown & Co., 1920
Genre: Fiction/Suspense
Setting: 1913 East Africa, England

About the Author: E. Phillips Oppenheim (1866 – 1946) was a English novelist, acclaimed for his thrillers, of which this is the most renowned, selling over 1,000,000 copies in its first year and inspiring several movies over time.  Oppenheim worked in the leather industry for many years and, interestingly, met his wife in Easthampton, Massachusetts while traveling for work in 1892 (Easthampton, about a 90-minute drive from my home, is better known for textiles than leather). Returning to England and settling in Leicestershire, he published the first of more than 160 novels in 1897.    During the Great War he worked for the Ministry of Information in London, which must have provided inspiration for future books.  The Great Impersonation was a perfect choice for the #1920Club, hosted by Simon at Stuck in a Book and Karen at Kaggsy’s Bookish Ramblings.

Plot: Two men meet in an isolated part of Africa and realize they bear an uncanny resemblance to each other and were , in fact, acquainted at Eton.   As they reminisce, it is clear that Baron Leopold Von Ragastein, a German aristocrat has thrived where Sir Everard Dominey has led a seedy existence since leaving England.   Both left their homes in disgrace – Ragastein fought a duel over a married woman and her husband died; he was banished by the Kaiser, while Dominey is accused of murdering his wife’s childhood friend.   Ragastein sees in Dominey’s declining fortunes an opportunity for his new assignment: to infiltrate English society and learn whether the country is prepared for war with Germany, if he can make Dominey disappear. 
The two men exchanged glances of rather more than ordinary interest. Then Dominey laughed.
“I know what you're thinking,” he said. “It gave me quite a start when you came in. We're devilishly alike, aren't we?” 
“There is a very strong likeness between us,” the other admitted. 
Dominey leaned his head upon his hand and studied his host. The likeness was clear enough, although the advantage was all in favour of the man who stood by the side of the camp bedstead with folded arms. Everard Dominey, for the first twenty-six years of his life, had lived as an ordinary young Englishman of his position,—Eton, Oxford, a few years in the Army, a few years about town, during which he had succeeded in making a still more hopeless muddle of his already encumbered estates: a few months of tragedy, and then a blank. Afterwards ten years—at first in the cities, then in the dark places of Africa—years of which no man knew anything. The Everard Dominey of ten years ago had been, without a doubt, good-looking. The finely shaped features remained, but the eyes had lost their lustre, his figure its elasticity, his mouth its firmness. He had the look of a man run prematurely to seed, wasted by fevers and dissipation. Not so his present companion. His features were as finely shaped, cast in an even stronger though similar mould. His eyes were bright and full of fire, his mouth and chin firm, bespeaking a man of deeds, his tall figure lithe and supple. He had the air of being in perfect health, in perfect mental and physical condition, a man who lived with dignity and some measure of content, notwithstanding the slight gravity of his expression. 
“Yes,” the Englishman muttered, “there's no doubt about the likeness, though I suppose I should look more like you than I do if I'd taken care of myself. But I haven't. That's the devil of it. I've gone the other way; tried to chuck my life away and pretty nearly succeeded, too.”
Several months later, a man calling himself Dominey returns to England after eleven years away, resumes old friendships, gains the trust of the German Ambassador, and subtly help Germany lay the groundwork for war.   Kaiser Wilhelm himself has blessed this mission, and to facilitate his acceptance by his peers Germany is discreetly paying off all the mortgages on Dominey’s Norfolk estates.  Will the great impersonation convince Dominey’s wife and Ragastein’s lover?
My Impressions: This is a great read!  I have always been a huge fan of impersonation stories, with my favorites being Brat Farrar, The Ivy Tree, and Savannah Purchase. This one combines a daring impersonation, espionage, and the aristocratic country home, about to become a trademark of mystery fiction.  For a book a hundred years old, The Great Impersonation holds its own (apart from a few regrettable phrases) with a compelling plot, a vivid look at the coming war, and interesting characters. The most fascinating is the German Ambassador, who is depicted as a man of integrity, committed to advancing peace between the two countries but the unwitting pawn of his countrymen who anticipate and look forward to war, plotting behind his back.  
Another appealing character is Dominey’s cousin Caroline, Duchess of Worcester, who was kind to him before he left and wheedled loans out of her husband when Dominey was down on his luck (the Duke is astounded when Dominey returns and wants to repay him). The two women, Lady Dominey and Stephanie,  Princess Eiderstrom, the cause of Ragastein’s duel and exile, are important but less dimensional characters, one pure and one temptress.  Lady Dominey had a nervous breakdown when her husband was accused of murder and has never recovered (she is annoyingly childlike and fragile).   Princess Eiderstom is a beautiful Hungarian who does not seem to hold a grudge against Ragastein for the duel that killed her husband; in fact, she wants her lover back and is only temporarily persuaded to stay quiet about the impersonation.  In the meantime,  Dominey takes possession of his ancestral acres and treats his estranged wife with kindness, even when she attempts to kill him in the middle of the night.  This makes the reader want to root for the German impersonator – or is he an impersonator? 

Source: Project Gutenberg


BookTapestry said...

This sounds good! Thanks for the review.

Davida Chazan (The Chocolate Lady) said...

Oh, this sounds good. Thanks!

kaggsysbookishramblings said...

What fun! A great discovery for the 1920 Club - sounds fabulous! :D

Simon T - StuckinaBook said...

I'd never heard of this but quite a few people read it - and I'm glad it turned out to be such fun!

Lory said...

Impersonation stories are so fascinating, aren't they? Maybe most of us have a secret wish to find a "double" and live another, more exciting life...