by Stephen May)
Fakers, phonies and frauds: tragically these can be some of the most dazzling, most beguiling – and most fun – people you can meet. And what is true for life goes double for fiction.
Writing my latest book which is partly about identity theft I realised I was part of a long literary tradition. Not that my hapless impostor really comes close to matching some of these rogues.
1. The Wonderful Wizard of Oz by L Frank Baum
As everyone surely knows, the Wizard of this story actually turns out to be an ordinary old man, blown to Oz from Omaha in a balloon. Oz is a fable about the importance of self-belief, but also a commentary on how much power rests on simple tricks. Oz tells us that charisma is not necessarily an innate quality restricted to a few exceptional individuals, but is a gift from ordinary people eager to have a hero to worship. In this case the wizard is a reluctant impostor – he doesn't want to be all-powerful, he just wants to return home and work in a circus. Don't we all?
2. Two Much by Donald E Westlake
Art Dodge invents a twin brother so he can date two different women. It works pretty well until he gets confused, and one of the women thinks her boyfriend's brother has made a pass at her. She insists her boyfriend – Bart – confront his sleazy bro and wants to be there when he does. It's a problem. Of course it's no surprise that Art's losing the plot because he is also trying to stay one step ahead of some mobsters he has mortally offended. Writer Westlake was no stranger to false identities himself having published books under at least 16 names.
3. Matchstick Men by Eric Garcia
Roy and Frankie are matchstick men – con artists. Partners in elegant crimes for years, they know each other like brothers. Frankie is the adventurous one, hungry for a big score. While Roy is the careful one. But it is also cautious Roy who has to deal with discovering he has a spiky teenage daughter who wants to learn the grifting ropes. There are, disappointingly for British readers, no references to either the painter LS Lowry or the classic 1970s pop hit of the same title.
4. Madame Doubtfire by Anne Fine
A messy divorce results in successful businesswoman Miranda Hilliard severely restricting the amount of time her three children can spend with their father, Daniel, an out-of-work actor. Daniel doesn't opt for any Fathers4Justice style stunts, but instead transforms himself into Madame Doubtfire, the nanny hired by his wife to look after the kids. It ends as you would expect, with the parents reconciling and the whole thing becoming a Hollywood vehicle for Robin Williams. A rare example of a fictional impostor who is also an example of humanity's basic decency.
5. The Life and Loves of a She-Devil by Fay Weldon
Labelled a "she-devil" by her faithless husband, Bobbo, Ruth resolves to behave accordingly. Disappearing from his life so completely that Bobbo thinks she's dead. Ruth is actually using a string of aliases to ruin his life and that of his mistress, the nauseatingly fragrant Mary Fisher. The increasingly extreme acts of vengeance climax in Ruth living in her Mary's mansion, having had plastic surgery to look exactly like her now dead rival. She is looking forward to Bobbo's release from the jail term she engineered for him, but only so she can make his life so miserable that prison seems like a golden age. Ruth is brutal and implacable. In a good way.
6. The Count Of Monte Cristo by Alexandre Dumas
The novel that tells us "All human wisdom is contained in these two words: wait and hope." Which seems about right. Edmond Dante is wrongly imprisoned, but escapes from jail and acquires a fortune. Creating the new identity of the Count of Monte Cristo, he dedicates his life to taking imaginative vengeance on his enemies, who learn his true identity at the moment the revenge is completed. As well as becoming the Count, our hero takes on at least eight other aliases during the course of the novel, including Sinbad the Sailor and, less believably, an English milord.
7. The Man in the Iron Mask by Alexandre Dumas
In this fantastically complicated Three Musketeers novel the man in the mask is Phillipe, the twin brother of the French King Louis XIV. Musketeer Aramis plots to swap the royal brothers, putting the twin on the throne as part of a long game which is intended to ensure that the new king will help his own rise to becoming cardinal and, eventually, Pope. Becoming Pope – surely what every self-respecting impostor should aspire to.
8. The Pardoner's Tale by Geoffrey Chaucer
Possibly my favourite story ever. The essence of all crime fiction is contained in this story. Three men find some serious treasure. One goes to get celebratory hooch but is murdered by the others on his return. Unfortunately for his treacherous compadres he has poisoned the booze. A very effective parable about the dangerous effects of sudden wealth and one that should be read to all lottery winners. Its power is in no way diminished by being told by a clergyman who is also a fornicating drunkard offering sinners absolution for cash.
9. The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
The first of a series of novels collectively known by admirers as The Ripliad, the books follow Tom Ripley a young man who murders a rich acquaintance, Dickie Greenleaf, and then assumes his identity. Unusually, the killer goes unpunished – rewarded even. This story ends with Ripley happily rich, having reverted to his own identity as the beneficiary of Dickie's will. There is a suggestion that he will be haunted by paranoia for the rest of his life, wondering if he "was going to see policemen on every pier". But you suspect he might be able to live with that.
10. Flashman by George Macdonald Fraser
Introduced by Thomas Hughes in his 1840 novel Tom Brown's Schooldays as a bully and a coward, the Harry Flashman character was revived by George Macdonald Fraser in the 1960s as – well, as a bully and a coward. Not to mention an incorrigible womaniser. However, Macdonald Fraser's adult Flashman is also able to portray himself as a hero of Victorian wars from Afghanistan to the Boxer Rebellion. Narrated with candid verve by Flashman himself, each rollicking adventure ends with our anti-hero more famous, more bemedalled and more attractive to society women than ever before. The stories are great but the real enjoyment of these books comes from the footnotes which offer a powerful insight into British colonial foolishness.
* This article was altered to remove an inaccurate biographical detail about Alexandre Dumas