When Oliver Beckett spots her on stage in Omaha in 1924, he’s less impressed by her routine than her eerie resemblance to his niece, Jessie Carr, a lumber heiress who disappeared nearly seven years ago, when she was 14. Jessie is set to inherit the Carr fortune when she turns 21, but now she’s nowhere to be found.
Oliver offers Leah the permanent role of Jessie under the condition that she’ll split the dough with him once she gets it. After she’s let go from her longtime role in a family act, she knows it’s a challenge she can’t refuse.
Leah is easy to root for, since she doesn’t have evil intentions. She’s just a young woman who has the talent and needs the money, and her story will make you forget where you are and lose yourself in the show. The part calls for improvisation, special training, and quick, intense study, with her greedy and unscrupulous “Uncle Oliver” feeding her many of the details she’ll need. To succeed, she must convince the trustees of Carr Industries that she’s really Jessie, then insinuate herself within Jessie’s family at the Carr estate of Cliff House, an enormous “summer cottage” along Oregon’s coast. And not everyone there is happy to welcome Jessie back.
The Impersonator, winner of the Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Award for 2012, offers many mysteries in one, and they coil suspensefully together to form a complicated puzzle. Will Leah’s depiction be convincing enough? Why do dangerous accidents keep following her? What happened to the real Jessie, and will she resurface to put in her own claim?
To assuage her growing sense of guilt at deceiving her newfound relatives, Leah launches her own secret investigation into Jessie’s disappearance and stumbles into more than she bargained for.
Miley takes a world that has vanished into the shadows of nearly a century ago and pulls it back onto center stage. Her re-created atmosphere of Prohibition-era America hums with vibrant life: the decadent glamour of vaudeville, the crafty trade of smuggled hooch, and the racial tensions threatening to boil over in the culturally diverse Pacific Northwest. She also includes just enough period lingo to give a sense of the era without overdoing it. It’s a tightly woven performance, and a totally enjoyable one.
The Impersonator will be published on September 17th by Minotaur Books ($24.99, hb, 358pp). Thanks to the publisher for sending me a review copy. Visit the author's website, her blog Mary Miley's Roaring '20s, and also her site on History Myths Debunked. Tune in next Tuesday, also, when she'll be stopping by with a fun article about vaudeville memorabilia.