I Have Impersonated*

An interesting recent post from Moira at Clothes in Books has got me thinking about impersonation. In today’s world of biometrics and enhanced identification, it’s harder to impersonate someone else than it used to be. But it still happens. Impersonation can make for an effective plot point in a crime novel, too, as there can be so many reasons why a person would take that step.

There’s an interesting impersonation in Arthur Conan Doyle’s The Adventure of the Copper Beeches. Violet Hunter is looking for a position as governess and is considering whether she should take an offer from wealthy Jephro Rucastle. The pay he suggests is good, but he asks some unusual things of her, and she’s not sure she should accept. She visits Sherlock Holmes, who counsels her not to take the job. At first, she heeds his advice, but then, Rucastle raises the proposed salary to a level that she cannot resist. So, she takes the offer. Holmes tells her that if she gets into trouble, all she need do is write to him. And it’s not long before that’s exactly what happens. Holmes gets a letter from her, and he and Watson go to the Rucastle home as quickly as they can – and just in time to save Violet Hunter. And it turns out that an impersonation plays an important role in the story.

Agatha Christie uses impersonation in a few of her stories. Naming all of the stories would come a little too close to spoiling for me, But here’s one example. In Taken at the Flood, we are introduced to the Cloade family. They’ve always depended on oldest brother and patriarch Gordon Cloade, and he’s encouraged that, telling them not to worry about money. Then, unexpectedly, Cloade marries a widow, Rosaleen Underhay. When he dies without a will, it looks as though Rosaleen will inherit his wealth, leaving the rest of the family with nothing. Then, a stranger who calls himself Enoch Arden comes to town. He hints that Rosaleen’s first husband, Robert Underhay, is not dead. If he’s not, this means that Rosaleen can’t inherit Gordon Cloade’s money. But is Robert Underhay really alive? If not, who is it? Everything gets even more complicated when Arden is killed. Hercule Poirot, who’s already heard some of the Cloade story, gets involved in the investigation, and finds out the truth about Robert Underhay, about the money, and about the Cloade family.

James M. Cain’s Double Indemnity is the story of insurance agent Walter Huff. He stops in to visit a client, a man named Nirdlinger, and by chance meets Nirdlinger’s wife, Phyllis. He’s immediately attracted to her, and she makes no effort to discourage him. The two begin an affair, and Huff is so besotted that he falls in with a plot Phyllis has devised. She wants Huff to kill her husband for his life insurance money. She even persuades him to write a special policy that will ensure that she gets the money even if her husband has committed suicide. Huff agrees and the two put their plan into action. The Nirdlingers take a train ride, and Huff commits the murder while they’re aboard. Then, Huff impersonates Nirdlinger for a short time. Later, they dump the body to make it look as though he committed suicide or had an accident. It seems that everything is going to go Huff’s way, but that’s not how it happens. True to the spirit of the noir story that this is, there’s plenty of tragedy to be had…

Patricia Highsmith’s Tom Ripley is no stranger to impersonation. In Ripley Under Ground, for instance, Ripley and his friends Jeff Constant, Ed Banbury and Bernard Tufts manage a successful ‘business enterprise’ of Ripley’s creation. They’ve convinced a Bond Street gallery called the Buckmaster Gallery to handle the work of painter Philip Derwatt, a relative unknown who died a few years earlier. Tufts creates new ‘Derwatt’ works, and the others do their part to keep them in the public eye. Then, an American Derwatt enthusiast named Thomas Murchison visits the Buckmaster. He’s especially knowledgeable about Derwatt’s work, so he notices a few subtle but real differences between the real Derwatt’s paintings, and the others. Ripley and his team decide that the best thing to do is for Ripley to go to London, impersonate Derwatt, and convince Murchison that the painting he asked about is a genuine Derwatt. Murchison isn’t entirely convinced, though, even by a ‘visit from the artist.’ When he threatens to go to the authorities, Ripley decides he’ll need to take decisive action. Pretending to be another art enthusiast, he tries to convince Murchison not to go to the authorities. Murchison isn’t convinced, though, so Ripley decides to take care of ‘the Murchison problem.’ He duly deals with that, only to find that his solution isn’t quite as foolproof as he thought.

And then there’s Denise Mina’s Field of Blood, the first of her Paddy Meehan series. It’s 1981 Glasgow, and Paddy works as a copy girl for the Scottish Daily News. She wants more than anything to be a reporter, but it’s a male-dominated, very sexist time and place, and she doesn’t have much of a chance. Then, three-year-old Brian Wilcox is murdered, ostensibly by two other boys, one of whom is related to Paddy’s fiancé Sean. Paddy’s not sure the boys are guilty, though, and starts asking questions. When reporter Heather Allen finds out about the story, she pursues it, taking it away from Paddy. But Paddy persists, even pretending to be Heather as she searches for the truth. Then, Heather is murdered. Now, Paddy is sure that she’s on the right track, and Brian Wilcox’s death is more complicated than it seemed.

Impersonation is woven through a lot of fiction (not just crime fiction), and it’s not hard to see why. It makes for a very effective plot point, it can add tension, and it’s an interesting twist. Thanks, Moira, for the inspiration! Now, please, treat yourself to a visit to Moira’s excellent blog, where you’ll find lots of fine reviews and discussion of fictional clothes and culture, and what it all tells us about ourselves.

*NOTE: The title of this post is a line from Walking Lands’ Greet! Yield!





14 thoughts on “I Have Impersonated*

  1. What a great post Margot, I am proud to have in some sense inspired it! I love your examples – all perfect. And I now think I shoukd read the Denise Mina book….


    1. Thanks, Moira. And thanks for the inspiration. It really was good to jog my mind about this – such an interesting topic! And if you do read the Mina, I hope you’ll really enjoy it.


  2. Interesting post Margot! I love those crime (and other!) novels which play with identity, but I think you’re right about how much more difficult it might be nowadays. Having said that, maybe modern technology, when used effectively, could help those wanting to take on another identity. We may not be as safe as we think… 😉


    1. You have a point, KBR! Stories that play with identity are great if they’re done well, but it is harder now. Still, if there are modern, sophisticated ways to check identity, there are likely equally effective ways to take on a new one. Mouse traps and mice, I suppose… 😉

      Liked by 1 person

  3. It probably would be more difficult nowadays but I bet it still happens! I was reminded of two very different books – Vertigo by Boileau-Narcejac and Murder by Matchlight by ECR Lorac – which share one similarity; that in each there’s an impersonation enabled by the issues of missing records and displaced people during WW2. Vertigo is particularly interesting because the impersonation is actually enforced on one character by another, who wants a replacement for a dead woman he’s obsessed about.


    1. Oh, I agree, FictionFan – it probably does happen! People may need to be more sophisticated about it, but it still, I am sure, goes on. Thanks for mentioning both Vertigo and Murder by Matchlight It’s interesting how both of them bring up the way records were destroyed, lost, etc., after the world wars. That probably made it all the easier to impersonate someone else. And you’re right; the whole plot point of being forced to impersonate someone adds a whole new twist to story. It can add solid character development, too!

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Thanks for an interesting post. Identity theft, a form of impersonation, is a major real life issue. When we need documents signed outside Saskatchewan the signer must go before a notary and produce 2 forms of ID with one form being photo. The notary must certify on a copy of the ID they saw the signer. Beyond considerable work it means copies of the signer’s ID are now sent to us. Verifying ID has produced a vulnerability to ID security.


    1. You make a really well-taken point, Bill, about identity theft. It’s a very big issue here, too. In fact, when we bought our current property, we had to go through all sorts of procedures to verify our identities. And the same thing happened not many months ago when I renewed my driving license. As you say, that opens everything up to new vulnerabilities, but verifying identity is seen as necessary to avoid identity theft. It’s a conundrum.


  5. I think I’ve come across it a few times, especially on a minor level. A reporter for instance trying to bluff a witness by acting as if he’s a part of the official investiigation ie a cop. One of the most memorable examples for me is in the film Sommersby with Jodie Foster and Richard Gere.


    1. I hadn’t thought of that sort of impersonation when I was writing this post, Col, but it definitely happens. I’ve read a few PI novels where the protagonist pretends to be a reporter or someone else like that to get information. And thanks for the reminder of Sommersby – I hadn’t thought of that film in a long time.


  6. I suppose most impersonations nowadays are done online. I share a name with a scientific researcher of roughly the same age and have occasionally thought it might not be that hard to pretend to be her (not sure for what purpose though).


    1. I’d guess you’re probably right, Marina Sofia. In some online environments, it’s quite easy to pretend to be someone else. Interesting, too, that you share a name with someone else like that! Deliberate pretending aside, I wonder if it causes any confusion for people who try to search for you or for her.

      Liked by 1 person

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