Saturday, January 9, 2021

The Great Impersonation by E. Phillips Oppenheim

Defies belief, but still fun
English author E. Phillips Oppenheim (1866-1946) was a writer of immensely popular thrillers in the early 20th century. His novel The Great Impersonation, likely his best-known work, was published in 1920 and sold more than a million copies that year. It also spawned three film adaptations.

The novel tells a story of international intrigue involving German spies in London just prior to the outbreak of World War I. The narrative begins, however, in Africa. Two former college friends meet at a camp in German East Africa. Leopold von Ragastein is a German baron and the military commandant of the colony. Everard Dominey is a down-on-his-luck English baronet, drifting around Africa in an alcoholic stupor after his plans for acquiring a fortune have fallen apart. Back when the pair were studying at Oxford, their friends always said they could be mistaken for twins. Von Ragastein sees an opportunity in taking advantage of their similarity of appearance. He decides to kill Dominey, assume his name, and take his place in English society, thus providing himself with a cover to spy for the Germans.

Despite the fact that the false Dominey is an imposter, he is the protagonist of the book and thus the character with whom the reader sympathizes most. At first von Ragastein’s mission for the Germans is unclear, even to himself. He gets mixed messages from his German “handlers” in London. He may be there to act as an active saboteur in case the two nations go to war, or he may be there to function as a propagandist urging for peace and economic cooperation. Both Dominey and von Ragastein have skeletons in their closet, and the imposter ends up having to deal with both of their mysterious pasts. Despite all the talk about war and espionage, the main focus of the novel for most of is length is romance. The primary conflict is not whether von Ragastein will do harm to England but rather whether his undercover work will require him to have sexual relations with Dominey’s wife, which would be ungentlemanly, even for a German spy. The espionage plot isn’t really clarified until the final four chapters, which cap the novel with an exciting finish.

Admittedly, the general premise of the plot is rather ridiculous. The idea that two unrelated men could look enough like one another to fool even one of their wives is hard to believe, as is the fact that von Ragastein could learn enough about Dominey’s affairs in London over the course of a few conversations to be able to pass for him without slipping up. This book was published in the 1920s, however, when such plot devices were common in movies and spy novels. Suspension of disbelief is forgivable as long as the author keeps us entertained, and Oppenheim does, with ample twists, turns, and close calls. Out of Oppenheim’s 100+ works, why is this his most popular? Its renown likely rests largely on one audacious climactic plot twist. I could see it coming, however, based on foreshadowing hints that Oppenheim provides earlier in the book.

This is only the second book I’ve read by Oppenheim, both of which I have enjoyed. The first was The Avenger, published in 1907, which I actually prefer over The Great Impersonation. In both cases, Oppenheim crafts intricate and suspenseful plots with an interesting ensemble cast of characters. His novels resemble cinematic thrillers from the early days of Alfred Hitchcock. They may be too farfetched for verisimilitude, but they do make for a fun ride.

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