This post is an amalgamation of two that were originally a part of InSpyNoMo.
E Phillips Oppenheim is generally accepted as coming up with the Rogue Male thriller hero — Buchan, Household et al. all take their lead in this respect. He was a prolific writer and managed to produce some of the most influential thrillers of of the genre; in terms of style and approach, certainly.
The story of The Great Impersonation (1920) is deceptive. This should come as no surprise, it’s a spy novel after all! Thus there are all kinds of shady characters up to no good, things lurking in the shadows and secrets being whispered in corners. HOWEVER, two of the subplots are also derived from your basic mystery, there’s a pseudo horror/ghost story floating about in the background, there are several strands of conventional romance… There’s a lot going on. Yet, I think (and I’ve changed my mind about this about a hundred times) Oppenheim is largely successful, because the one clear thread that ties it all together is the great imposter himself, Everard Dominey. Or Baron Leopold von Ragastein. Or is it Everard Dominey? No one knows!
In the first few pages we follow Dominy, a disgraced and penniless aristocrat on an eleven-year self-exile to Africa, who by extraordinary coincidence stumbles into the camp of Leopold von Ragastein. They had gone to school together, at Eton and Oxford, and bear so striking a resemblance they were frequently mistaken for one another as boys. Ragastein is himself in exile due to winning a dual with the husband of his lover. Initially the narrative perspective runs with Dominey, but very quickly we shift over to Ragastein as he conspires with his camp’s doctor to do away with Dominey so that Ragastein can return to England in his place.
Though we know Something Despicable is about to happen, and on good England’s unsuspecting shores, we don’t know what. All we really know is that Ragastein and his henchmen plan to have Dominey lead into the plains with only a bottle whiskey and some ‘very salty’ beef jerky for sustenance.
Once in England, however, the narrative perspective returns to Dominey. He clears up his family debts and sets about restoring the family name, yet no one can quite believe it’s him. He’s been gone for eleven years, but all the stories that came back were of a man who had drunk and brawled his way through the backwaters of an unforgiving continent. The man who returned, however, was cleaned up and ready to get to work — both in the political sphere and in curing the wife he sent into madness, eleven years earlier.
Well, that little mystery clears up once a gaggle of Germans start collecting about him — it’s Ragastein! Those foolish English. They may have their suspicions, but a gentleman’s word is his bond, and thus they are bound to believe he is who he says. For the rest of the book, Dominey, who refuses to be called Ragastein, even in private quarters, is faced with two things: hiding his true identity from all that knows him (despite frequent and awed denouncements of his claims) and trying to disentangle himself from women.
As Ragastein, he is betrothed to the temperamental Princess Eiderstrom (and indeed ordered to marry her by the Kaiser); as Dominey, he is married to an insane wife. As a gentleman he can take advantage of neither situation. The friends and confidants he has under both guises assure him he cannot get too close to either woman (in that way) because (as Ragastein) it would blow his cover and (as Dominey) his wife doesn’t believe a word of it.
The reason for his exile is that he was accused of murdering a man who was hopelessly in love with his wife and this fact prompted a psychological break-down in her, after which she swore he would not last one night under the same roof (so he went to Africa). Though on his first night back at his estate she does indeed make an attempt on his life, once she realises he is not who he says he is, all desire to murder him vanish. This is seen as proof of her insanity and she is sent away to a seaside hospital where a bit of fresh air might be the ticket to rid her of these fantasies.
I can’t spoil all of it for you, because you should really read it, but basically, it turns out to be a bit of a Roger Ackroyd, wherein the man who we have allowed ourselves to sympathise with is revealed to be not the man anyone thought him at all. He is Everard Dominey. He has achieved that rare triple agent status, in which he sets out to impersonate someone impersonating himself, all the while swearing he is not that someone but really himself (all in the name of keeping his identity straight) when in the company of those who are behind the conspiracy.
There are several very interesting things at work in this doubling and tripling of deception: a swirling mass of questions arise, regarding identity and what constitutes the Self, the landscape of narrative assumption and the severing of trust between reader and narrator, of neat gentlemanly conduct and how propriety can both get a man into and out of all kinds of mischief. Not least, the troubling question of the mad wife, who has been taken care of by her very own mad woman in the attic. Evoking a rather horrible twist on Emily Bronte (and predicting a myriad horrors from the likes of Daphne du Maurier and Virginia Woolf), here the mad wife is merely furious, but driven insane by her bat-shit crazy housekeeper. Indeed, this adds to the milieu questions regarding women’s innate fragility and lingering late-Victorian beliefs about female hysteria. This bizarre situation seems to confirm Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s supposition that sometimes the boudoir is the very thing that provides the trap. Unfortunately, Oppenheim doesn’t take this far enough to satisfy. Lady Dominey forgives her husband far too soon, is ready to believe that the new Dominey killed the old Dominey and thinks she probably prefers it this way. You could make an argument that she is the only one lucid enough to realise Dominey is playing games, but I’m not sure I’m satisfied with that.
There are the usual emphases on written documents, safe deposit boxes to house written documents and the power wielded by those who own written documents, but they’re all a bit McGuffin. We never truly get to examine the contents of the diary that comes into Dominey’s possession — but perhaps that’s because when he receives it we still believe him to be a fake. And if we were to read over his shoulder then, we’d be just as morally depraved as any foreign agent who read over the shoulder of England.