Wednesday, 21 August 2013

The Great Impersonation by E Philips Oppenheim

Published 1920  chapter 1


[Everard Dominey, travelling in Africa, has collapsed. He wakes up in a strange hut.]

In a few moments the tall, slim figure of a European, in spotless white riding clothes, stooped down and came over to Dominey's side. "You are better?" he enquired politely.

"Yes, I am," was the somewhat brusque rejoinder. "Where the mischief am I, and who are you?"

The newcomer's manner stiffened. He was a person of dignified carriage, and his tone conveyed some measure of rebuke. "You are within half a mile of the Iriwarri River, if you know where that is," he replied,—"about seventy-two miles southeast of the Darawaga Settlement." 

"The devil! Then I am in German East Africa?"

"Without a doubt."

[Later he sees a doctor] "Some bodies of Askaris have been washed up from the river," the doctor informed him, "and two of your ponies have been eaten by lions. You will excuse. I have the wounds of a native to dress, who was bitten last night by a jaguar."


observations: When I feel I haven’t read enough manly, testosterone-driven books I take a look at Col’s Criminal Library, an excellent blog full of books I seem never to have heard of. Sometimes his descriptions sound like parodies of noir classics, and before now I have accused him of making them up (something surely he would never do?) – in his world there are titles like Horse’s Arse and Pig’s Head, policemen called Pufferfish, and gritty noir cult classics called Lethal Injection.

The Great Impersonation is pretty mild in comparison, but I am very grateful to Col for the recommendation, as the book is what is technically known as a hoot and a half. In the African jungles in 1910, a German and an Englishmen meet: they were at school together and are doubles. Both are patriots. One comes back to resume life in London. But is he Sir Everard Dominey, or is he in fact the German, come to do untold damage to the English cause in support of Kaiser Wilhelm?

While you are guessing away about that, you can also be very impressed by this sexy man, who has a Hungarian countess, a Duchess and his wife at his feet. (There is a wonderful scene where he receives clandestine orders that he must marry one of these women at once – “You could not expect me to mix up a secret honeymoon with my current commitments!” he says irritably.)

Oppenheim was a swaggering figure who wrote more than 100 books and lived a life of (apparently) great wealth and glamour – I had assumed his books, very successful and popular in their day, would be routine or mediocre, but this one is excellent, and will need two entries to do it justice (more on sex, coming soon). It’s a great pity the book contains casual racism and unthinking jingoism that read badly to modern sensibilities.

There is a Captain Bartram in the book, which is also the name of the hero of The strange Fate of Kitty Speller, set around the same time as this one was written.

The picture is of someone called Arthur Sullivan – it’s from the Library of Congress and there is little detail given, though it does seem to be someone dressed up for a costume party rather than a real explorer.

6 comments:

  1. Moira - Oh, this does sound like quite an adventure. A possible spy, an African adventure and a past history? Yes, quite a reading adventure. I know what you mean too about books that are excellent but still show attitudes and assumptions we find pretty deplorable today. I've read a few of them too.

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    1. I did really enjoy this one - very much of its time, with the good and the bad that I mention, but highly entertaining.

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  2. Moira, I'm delighted you enjoyed it, I ought to pull my finger out and read some of my books, instead of blogging about them!
    Happy to have been of service on this occasion.

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    1. You still haven't read it, right? It's ironic that I got a really good read & blog entry out of your failure to read it. But you still get credit, and you might read it one day...

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  3. I was also alerted to this book and the author at Col's blog. Although I like vintage mysteries, I don't know that I have read any written this early. From your description and comments, it sounds interesting and I will put it on my list to look for.

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    1. I did enjoy it - it's online on Project Gutenberg, free, though I paid a couple of pounds to download a formatted version to my kindle.

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