Between 1887 and 1943, E. Phillips Oppenheim cranked out over 110 extremely popular novels of suspense and mystery. Published in 1920, his The Great Impersonation is arguably the most highly regarded of these, selling a million copies its first year. It’s been reprinted continually ever since, and adapted to film three times. This fall, the British Library is launching a new “Spy Classics” series, and is publishing The Great Impersonation anew this September along with the lesser-known 1935 Oppenheim title, The Spy Paramount. The two books are a study in contrasts.
The Great Impersonation opens in South Africa in 1913 when disgraced English aristocrat Everard Dominey encounters his double, the equally disgraced German Baron Leopold Von Ragastein. Months later, a much changed Dominey returns to his British home accompanied by a German handler who’s arranging for Ragastein, playing the role of Dominey, to infiltrate the British upper-class. It’s a long term mission with the central character trying to pull off several balancing acts at once against the backdrop of the brewing World War.
The Great Impersonation is not the sort of espionage story modern readers have become accustomed to. The plot isn’t about governmental agencies dueling with powerful adversaries or even spy vs. spy battles with one professional agent investigating criminals or terrorists who have dastardly designs on a large-scale. In fact, at the beginning of his mission, the ersatz Dominey is warned to not think of himself as a spy at all, but rather “a cuckoo in the eagle’s nest.”
True, there are tropes that will reappear in many a spy adventure to follow. The most significant will be the number of reluctant agents pressed into service as a result of blackmail, extortion, threats to family or lovers, or simply bumbling into unexpected circumstances. There would be many a doppelganger in spy fiction as well as surprising triple-crosses. In the case of “Ragastein,” he’s apparently trying to restore his good name after a duel gone bad. But replacing Dominey puts him into the more than awkward position of fending off two willful women while the murder Dominey is suspected of committing years ago literally haunts his estate.
First serialized as “The Man Who Saved The World” in Collier’s Weekly in 1934, The Spy Paramount is a more typical example of modern spy fiction set in an alternate earth timeline. In Rome we’re introduced to American Martin Fawley, a former secret service agent who says he’s looking for a new government to work for. He’s recruited by Italian General Berati who, within pages, is almost shot in an assassination attempt. Fawley inadvertently thwarts the attempt by throwing the would-be assassin off her stride while Berati disappears through a trap-door beneath his desk. With a touch of humor, Fawley quickly chases the assassin and picks up her lost slipper. She’s an Hungarian Princess, of course, who only gets her slipper back after promising no more such nonsense.
After introducing most of the major players, The Spy Paramount becomes something of a disjointed affair. At one point, Fawley has a 007-like scene where he nearly dies on a mountain range spying on a French super-weapon. For some bizarre reason, one baddie decides to destroy a yacht Fawley is on just because he’s under orders not to kill him. For the most part, Fawley travels from Monte Carlo to Berlin to London as vying factions of German power brokers try to pry information from him he doesn’t have or press for his support to urge Berati to join their cause.
For many reasons, The Spy Paramount lacks any semblance of verisimilitude, even if written five years before the outbreak of World War II. Even contemporary readers must have been confused by the competing German factions as none match with the Nazis or any other historical party of the time. None have an obvious ideology but rather promote various leaders who seemingly have time to bounce around Europe playing golf and wooing Fawley. The drive to have Betari and his unnamed superior, presumably Mussolini, to throw Italy’s weight behind them, is a complete reversal of the roles of Germany and Italy in the actual history of the 1930s.
Interestingly, most criticism of The Spy Paramount has dealt with the last chapters where Fawley is revealed to be an idealistic super-agent working for no one but the cause of peace. After having the French publicly demonstrate their super-weapon, he has the U.S. and the major countries of Europe all sign a pact forswearing ever going to war. That didn’t happen, of course. Could that happened? Oppenheim’s dream of a super-weapon igniting universal peace didn’t turn out to be especially prophetic, considering the aftermath of Hiroshima.
In the end, The Spy Paramount is primarily an interesting artifact of the times, mainly because none of the two-dimensional characters have any real depth and the seams in the fast-paced serialized story-line are hard to miss. It’s clear the book is emulating established trends popular in British spy novels and films. On the other hand, while The Great Impersonation was written in a slower style and the quasi-Gothic elements show their age, Oppenheim created a cast of main and supporting players who come to life on the page. Unlike The Spy Paramount, the settings in The Great Impersonation are vividly sketched and detailed. The theme of redemption for characters literally saved from the wilderness gives the book a literary dimension missing in The Spy Paramount.
Still, a new edition of The Great Impersonation isn’t likely to alter Oppenheim’s reputation one way or another. But it might please a new generation of readers who like stories with a dash of the Gothic, a Victorian-flavored love triangle, and a mystery or two set mainly in and around a picturesque British manor. In fact, The Great Impersonation should appeal more to mystery lovers than spy devotees. Good mysteries never get old.[amazon template=iframe image&asin=140680150X]