A Roaring ’20s Con

Vaudeville actress impersonates a missing heiress in a plot to skim millions.

The Impersonator

The Impersonator by Mary Miley Minotaur Books, $24.99

Two years ago, richmond resident Mary Miley entered a national competition for a first crime novel, but she’d forgotten all about it when the call came to tell her she’d won. “It’s a wonder I didn’t hang up on the editor,” she says. “It sounded like one of those ‘We’re-selling-timeshares-in-Florida’ calls.”

The manuscript in question wound up becoming Miley’s debut novel, The Impersonator. Already a successful author of numerous historical non-fiction books, this was her first foray into published fiction—but not her first attempt. This is actually the ninth novel she’s written. The first eight she chalks up to learning the craft of fiction. Apparently, the ninth time was a charm.

Set in the 1920s, her novel features Leah Randall, a plucky vaudeville actress with a keen stage presence. When Leah loses her job and can’t seem to land another role, a rich man comes to her with a proposition that will leave her never wanting again. His niece, Jessie Carr, is the rightful heir to her father’s fortune, but she has been missing for almost seven years and will soon be proclaimed dead. When that happens, the inheritance will transfer to a pair of cousins who dislike the uncle, thus removing him from the fortune he’s been skimming all these years. But seeing Leah perform in a show, he found her to be the spitting image of Jessie and hatched a plan: Leah can pretend to be Jessie and claim the inheritance—giving the lion’s share to him, of course. Doubtful at first, she finally agrees. The rich uncle coaches her, and Leah, now the new Jessie, memorizes family photographs and histories.

Right away, she’s in trouble. Everyone keeps testing her to see if she really knows what only Jessie would know. (Mistrusting cousins hire someone to pretend to be Jessie’s grandmother.) But her real concern is that someone is trying to kill her. First, her hotel burns down, then a car tries to run her over. It isn’t until she barely survives being poisoned that she finally rules out coincidence.

Her intriguing dilemma makes for a delightful and fast-paced story. How to tell friend from foe becomes increasingly difficult as the novel moves along and suspicions shift from one relative to another. By the time the conclusion rolls around, she doesn’t trust anyone, and neither will you.

Enhancing the tale further are rich details that bespeak the Prohibition years. Miley takes us inside the cramped confines of vaudeville theaters and to sordid gin joints where the booze flows freely, getting every little detail right along the way. Period authenticity goes with the territory for Miley, who taught American history at VCU for 13 years. “I pay more attention, maybe, to the historic details than I need to,” she says, “but they matter to me. I’m a historian, and I’m much happier living in the past than I am in the present or the future.”

Instead of relying on her own teaching background, Miley researched extensively and interviewed numerous people on such subjects as how to sabotage antique cars to where a telephone would be placed in a house. The lingo of that time period is also very specific. “Eyeglasses” are “cheaters,” “teenagers” are “in their teen years,” and nobody goes on “dates”— instead, they are “invited to dinner.”

“I learned from [The Model T Ford Club] that Model T’s weren’t called Model T’s until the ’30s,” she says. So, instead, her characters drive Fords or “flivvers.”

But it wasn’t just lingo and historical items that she researched. To get her poisoning details right, Miley consulted with pharmacist friend Dr. Mark Pugh. “You don’t want to ask questions like that of too many people,” Miley says. “They tend to worry about what you’re thinking.”

From the seedy atmosphere of speakeasies to a realm of opulence that would make Gatsby himself swoon, Miley has penned a rollicking ride through the Roaring ’20s that will captivate and leave you wanting more. The good news: There will be more, as Minotaur has already accepted a second book in this series from Miley for publication.

Miley is thrilled that the series is continuing, because each new novel allows her to spend a little more time investigating one of America’s most vibrant decades. “I hope people find the same fascination I do with the Roaring ’20s,” she says. “I was a teacher for a long time, and I can’t help but want to excite people about history. I hope readers are entertained and interested enough in the ’20s to go further and look into other books of that era, maybe learn a little something about one facet that interested them.”

Or you could just wait for her next novel, in which Leah takes her acting talents to Hollywood to work on “pre-talkies” (silent movies).

“Just between you and me,” Miley says, “I like it better than the first book.” If she’s right, the second one will be the cat’s pajamas. This one is already the bee’s knees.

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