The Great Impersonation – E. Phillips Oppenheim – Audible Book Review by Pat Viale
Though not exactly a household name nowadays, in his day E. Phillips Oppenheim (1866-1946) was as famous and widely read as Stephen King or John Grisham are today. Author of over 100 novels, he was described as “the Prince of Storytellers” and The Great Impersonation appeared on the 2009 Guardian list of 1,000 books to read before you die. Very much in the tradition of John Buchan (The Thirty-Nine Steps) And H Rider Haggard (King Solomon’s Mines), this is a stirring tale of derring-do with sinister spies, a mysterious princess, a malevolent housekeeper and even a mad woman (not kept in the attic this time!)
Set just before the First World War, the story begins when Englishman, Everard Dominey, comes across a former acquaintance of his, the German, Leopold von Ragastein, in the jungles of German East Africa.. They are immediately struck by their close resemblance and spend the night drinking and sharing stories of their dark pasts. We learn that Everard had fled from England ten years before after a duel and had been struggling to make a living in Africa ever since. Now totally down on his luck he is delighted to meet a friendly face. Leopold is more secretive about his life in Africa and having spiked the drinks, he hatches a plan to make Everard disappear in the wilderness and to steal his identity and fulfill a special assignment for the German government to infiltrate British society and political life.
What follows is a roller-coaster tale of secret meetings, mistaken identities and double dealing and even a howling ghostly presence who haunts the grounds of Everard’s estate. Full of improbable intrigue and reversals of fortune, it is very much a book of its time and if you are shocked by political “incorrectness” this is not the book for you – British superiority here is taken for granted, racial comments are rife and, as in many books of the period, the N-word appears frequently.
However, though dated, The Great Impersonation is a rollicking good story. If your tastes are more sophisticated and you are looking for subtlety, look elsewhere, but is you like an old-fashioned, fast moving tale of espionage and conspiracy you could do no better. The reader for Audible, Peter Noble, is excellent. Not only does he capture both the German and British accents perfectly, his tone and pacing throughout create a sense of tension that maintains out interest to the last page. Oppenheim is obviously coming back into fashion and Audible have included a number of his other books in their catalogue of recordings.
The book is available for download from audible.co.uk and lasts 8hrs 54 mins.