Leah Randall is a 24-year-old vaudeville actress whose small stature and apparent youth has allowed her to specialize in playing children's roles. She has been on her own for some time and is world-weary and street-smart, so when a man approaches her after a show, she attempts to give him a rapid brush-off. But this stranger, Oliver Beckett, isn't after the usual. He believes, until Leah dissuades him, that she is his niece, Jessamyn Carr, who vanished seven years earlier. Oliver tells Leah that Jessie most likely ran off. He marvels again at how identical Leah is to his missing niece, and Leah once again tells him that she is not.
"THE IMPERSONATOR is an absolutely delicious page-turner of a read, combining a sympathetic and intelligent main character, fascinating Roaring Twenties historical tidbits, an irresistible mystery (or mysteries), and a perfectly paced plot --- all capped off by a believable and satisfying conclusion."
The next night after Leah's last show, Oliver appears once again. He bribes Leah with a fine dinner at a nearby restaurant, including her friends in the invitation. Poverty-stricken Leah can't refuse and is soon seated at a small table for two, with her friends at another table, indulging in hors d'oeuvres and champagne (served in a teacup, due to Prohibition) while listening to Oliver make a proposal. Leah should take on a new role, playing Jessie Carr for the benefit of Jessie's few remaining relatives, which include a grandmother in San Francisco and an aunt and four cousins who live on the Oregon coast. Jessie is due to inherit a considerable fortune, estimated by Oliver to be around 10 million dollars, on her 21st birthday just six months away. After she inherits, Leah as Jessie can do whatever she wants, along with sharing the fortune with Oliver.
Leah's protests and questions are met with reassurances by Oliver, who is sure Jessie is dead since she has never contacted her family. No one alive besides the elderly grandmother knew Jessie before she was orphaned as a child, and the aunt and cousins she lived with afterward spent only three years with her before she disappeared. Oliver can handily educate Leah on everything she would need to know to impersonate Jessie.
Although Leah flatly refuses, imagining the prison sentence she's likely avoiding in the long run, her circumstances worsen until she has no choice but to find Oliver and (with considerable misgivings) agree to the ruse. Oliver is prepared to teach Leah, who now considers herself to be Jessie, everything she needs to know. He has blueprints of the house in Oregon and many details concerning Jessie's life. "Jessie" awes her mentor when she begins memorizing, thanks to her training as an actress. He also works with her to develop a believable backstory, which melds the fictional last seven years of Jessie's life with Leah's own history in vaudeville.
Leah's life as Jessie really begins when she meets her Grandmother Beckett. Oliver describes her as cold and formal, yet the new Jessie is unaccountably drawn to her --- and Grandmother reassures her by saying she would know her granddaughter anywhere, even after seven years. When Leah/Jessie, along with Oliver and Grandmother, travel to the house in Dexter, Oregon, they encounter the body of a murdered young woman, setting up an intriguing mystery that Leah can't help but try to solve, even as she must eventually pursue the puzzle of the real Jessie's disappearance. In the aunt's home, Leah finds a mixed reception, which both frightens her and serves to make her detective work even more urgent.
THE IMPERSONATOR is an absolutely delicious page-turner of a read, combining a sympathetic and intelligent main character, fascinating Roaring Twenties historical tidbits, an irresistible mystery (or mysteries), and a perfectly paced plot --- all capped off by a believable and satisfying conclusion. The Mystery Writers of America awarded this fine novel the prestigious award for Best First Crime Novel in 2012, and it easily lives up to this accolade.
Reviewed by Terry Miller Shannon on October 4, 2013