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The Great Impersonation Paperback – July 20, 2006
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This 1925 story begins with Sir Everard Dominey wandering lost through German East Africa, and finding an outpost commanded by Sigismund Devinter, a school mate at Eton (now Leopold Baron von Ragastein). There is a remarkable resemblance between these two, and they tell each other their life stories. Both were exiled after killing a man over a woman. But the German Baron plans to kill Dominey and return to England in his stead. This will allow undercover work during the coming war to crush England! The Baron travels to meet Seaman in South Africa and find the wealth needed to carry out the impersonation.
People notice some differences in the returned Sir Edward, who cleans up the mess he left behind. His wife gets proper care and begins to recover from her long illness. "Dominey" runs into the Baroness whose husband he killed in that duel; she is not fooled and now wants to marry. "Dominey" can do nothing as this could reveal his secret and overturn his life as an English country squire. A visitor brings a warning from Africa, then disappears from his room! There is the conflict between those who warn against a war with Germany and those who seek peace. But the conflict between Austria and Servia begins; countries mobilize for war, ending the hopes for peace. At the end the impersonation is unmasked. The backgrounds provide a description of life for the English gentry and their villagers that will disappear in a generation (it reminds me of Agatha Christie's stories).
No one wonders why they resemble each other. Some misbehavior by their parents? The book "Royal Babylon" tells about the lifestyles of the rich and powerful European aristocracy before The Great War.
The story opens in southern Africa about a year before the onset of the World War I. Englishman Sir Everard Dominey, his health broken down by rough living and whiskey during a self-imposed exile, stumbles half-dead into the camp of German Baron von Ragastein. The two men are near look-alikes and knew each other back at Eton. Von Ragastein, an officer in the German army and an espionage agent, devises a plan to substitute himself for Everard Dominey and to return to England to further German interests.
"Everard Dominey" does return to England. Amost everyone accepts him although they say he is much changed. Two exceptions: Dominey's mentally ill wife who claims he is not her husband and von Ragatein's former mistress who claims he is von Ragastein.
I won't reveal any more of the plot. The story moves along at a good clip. The are several clever subplots. The characters are a mixed lot that work well together: The main characters have complex, well-developed personalities while the minor characters are pretty much stock characters (gruff but kindly doctor, naive idealist diplomat, etal). The suprise ending may be less of a surprise to modern readers than it was in 1920 when when the book was published, but even knowing the ending it is fun to read the book and watch how Oppenheim sets up the climax.
WARNING! The first few chapters of the book, where the setting is Africa, are offensive. The Europeans (both German and English) treat Africans as an inferior race and use the N-word frequently.
Not to mention great dialogue like, "His excellency and I have reached a cul-de-sac in our argument, the blank wall of good-natured but fundamental disagreement." I will now use "cul-de-sac" in the many frustrating arguments I have on the work- and home-fronts. But beyond the fine lines worthy of incorporation into my standards, I plan to return to the book for a re-read in few years time recognizing its influence on current thrillers. A great find and one I highly recommend.
I did guess at the macguffin in this book; it says a lot for the writer's accomplishment that I was still enthralled to see how the plot works itself out. The story has the same sort of feel about it that DuMaurier's _Rebecca_ has--I think anyone who enjoys one would definitely enjoy the other. Highly recommended.