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In 1917, Jessie Carr, fourteen years old and sole heiress to her family's vast fortune, disappeared without a trace. Now, years later, her uncle Oliver Beckett thinks he's found her: a young actress in a vaudeville playhouse is a dead ringer for his missing niece. But when Oliver confronts the girl, he learns he's wrong. Orphaned young, Leah's been acting since she was a toddler.
Oliver, never one to miss an opportunity, makes a propositionwith his coaching, Leah can impersonate Jessie, claim the fortune, and split it with him. The role of a lifetime, he says. A one-way ticket to Sing Sing, she hears. But when she's let go from her job, Oliver's offer looks a lot more appealing. Leah agrees to the con, but secretly promises herself to try and find out what happened to the real Jessie. There's only one problem: Leah's act won't fool the one person who knows the truth about Jessie's disappearance.
Set against a Prohibition-era backdrop of speakeasies and vaudeville houses, Mary Miley's Minotaur Books/Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Competition winner The Impersonator will delight readers with its elaborate mystery and lively prose.
About the Author
MARY MILEY is the winner of the 2012 Minotaur Books / Mystery Writers of America First Crime Novel Competition. She worked at Colonial Williamsburg, taught American history at Virginia Commonwealth University for thirteen years, and has published extensively in history and travel as Mary Miley Theobald. The Impersonator is her first novel. Miley lives in Richmond, Virginia.
Read an Excerpt
By Mary Miley
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2013 Mary Miley
All rights reserved.
I felt his eyes before I saw his face. A quick sweep of the audience and I spotted him, the man from last night. On the aisle again, row C, seat 1. A good choice — his bulk would have overflowed the armrests of an interior seat and caused his neighbors to curl their lips and lean away.
I am sensitive to being watched. Whenever someone's eyes rest overlong on me, a prickly awareness flushes across my neck and shoulders. It comes from a lifetime spent onstage, honing the subtler tricks of the trade — the toss of the hair, the jut of the hips, the flutter of the fingers — whatever pulls the audience's attention. I can throw attention too: a gasp and wide eyes will send them searching for the cause of my surprise; my languid examination of another actor will turn every head in the audience to him. I know what I'm doing, and I know when I am doing it. At that moment, I was doing nothing. I had finished my line and moved stage right where I stood like a marble statue so as not to distract from Darcy's solo verse. I was doing nothing to draw the fat man's stare, yet he was staring.
Had he been young and attractive, I would have been pleased, but this man made me uneasy. He wasn't watching the act; he was watching me. Two nights in a row. I'd put it down to my great beauty, but I live my life close to the mirror, and I know better.
I missed my cue — something I'd hear about later. Hands on hips, I tap-danced back into the lights, caught up with Angie approaching from stage left, and the seven Little Darlings began to sing the final refrain.
You've got to see Mama ev'ry night,
Or you can't see Mama at all!
All eyes were on me now, and I blocked out any thought of the fat man in the third row.CHAPTER 2
Three bows. It should have been two, but "Mama" stole the last one, pulling us back onstage as the applause drizzled away, leaving us to slink off in silence. I was mortified, but no one blamed me, I was just a kid. So to speak. We got out of the way for the Kanazawa Japs.
Our dressing room was as small as a closet. Angie kept bumping my elbow as I wiped off the greasepaint. I snapped at her, then apologized. She was a good kid, wiser than her seventeen years, and a good friend since she'd joined the Little Darlings a couple years back. The closet wasn't her fault. Fact of the matter, it was better than most I'd seen growing up, with electric lights and heat and toilets in the basement. The Creighton, like all Orpheum Circuit theaters, was Big Time and pretty decent, all in all. But even a headliner's dressing room at the Creighton would have been seriously crowded with nine of us struggling to change to street clothes.
At last I escaped, my coat over my shoulders and Angie at my heels.
"Lordy mercy, I could use a drink!" she exclaimed — uselessly, since we both knew my bottle of hooch was empty and neither of us knew Omaha well enough to find a speakeasy that would admit two girls who looked fifteen. "Three shows! Whew!"
"Many's the time I've played four or even five shows a day," I said. "And in theaters without dressing rooms at all. We're lucky to have made Big Time."
"I know," she said, but she didn't really.
We threaded our way down the narrow passageway choked with crates, props, barrels, and paint cans. Angie caught her foot in a coil of rope and dislodged a rat. She smothered a scream as it scurried ahead of us and disappeared into the shadows.
"Yikes! Where's the Cat Circus when you need 'em?" I said, immediately regretting the little quip when I saw the quiver in Angie's lip. She was sweet on the young man who managed that act, and we hadn't shared a billing with him in many weeks.
"Button up," Angie said, as she squared her shoulders and threw open the heavy stage door. March in the Midwest has its pleasant days. This wasn't one of them.
"I'm going back to Mabel's," I told her by way of an invitation. "I snitched some rolls and chicken legs when no one was looking. Enough for two."
The alley was muddy and littered with broken glass. Old playbills clogged the gutter. Ahead of us, a voice called out to someone, "Jessie!"
Angie and I tied scarves over our heads and made our way toward the main street, guided by the light of the single gas lamp that glowed in front of the theater. It was a nine-block walk to Mabel's boardinghouse where the Little Darlings were lodged this week. Tomorrow was our last night. On Sunday we'd jump to Tulsa, a day's train ride if we were lucky and there were no cows on the tracks.
I paid no attention. It wasn't my name.
Then I saw him in the lamplight. The fat man from the aisle seat. Waiting for Angie and me to come down the alley. Except I knew he wasn't waiting for Angie.
Nothing to worry about; I'd blown off men before.
He stood with his hands in the pockets of a cashmere topcoat, a Vandyke beard on his chin, and a fine fedora on his head. "Jessie! Jessamyn Carr!" he said as we came closer.
I gave an exaggerated look over my shoulder, shrugged, and attempted to walk past him.
"Wait! A moment, please. Just a moment. I recognized you from the audience, Jessie. You remember me, don't you? Uncle Oliver? Of course you do."
He didn't grab my arm or try to touch me in any way, and his round face was creased with what looked like genuine anxiety. Maybe, just maybe, he was legit — and I didn't want to be unkind. I decided to play it straight. "I'm sorry, sir. You've mistaken me for someone else. Excuse us, please."
"No, I can't be wrong. You're Jessie Carr. Even after all these years, I'd recognize you anywhere — the auburn hair, the eyes, the freckles." His sincerity was unmistakable, and I felt a stab of sympathy for him.
"Look, Mr. Oliver, I am sorry. But honestly, I'm not your niece. I've gone by a lot of names in my life, but Jessie was never one of them. I guess I look like her, but you know what they say: there's a double for every one of us somewhere in the world." His expression was almost comical with disbelief, and he seemed to grow smaller, like a round balloon with some of the air let out. I felt sorry for him. "Is your niece in vaudeville?"
"Oh, no ... at least, not that I know of," he replied, peering hard at my face to watch for my reaction as he continued with his tale. "My late sister's child, Jessamyn Carr, disappeared seven years ago, in the summer of 1917. Ran away, no doubt. No one has seen her since. You look so much like her ... those freckles ... She would be twenty now, almost twenty-one. At first glance I thought you were too young, but after careful study, I realized you were older than the girl you play on stage. Are you sure there's no chance that you could be —"
"Well, I'm older than twenty," I said. His eyes widened in surprise. So did Angie's. I generally keep mum about my real age. Most people in the business figure I'm around seventeen, and they're amused at how much younger I appear, on stage and off. It's been the key to my success, really. "I've been in vaudeville since I was a baby, so I can't be your niece."
He gave a great sigh and rubbed his hand over his face. "I beg your pardon, young lady. I — I really thought ... you are so like her, exactly as she would look grown-up. It's — well, it's uncanny. Excuse me."
He bowed from the waist like I was royalty, lifted his hat, and walked off in the opposite direction from Mabel's.
Angie arched her eyebrows in a silent question that I answered with a shrug of my shoulders.
"He seemed so sure ..." She trailed off. I knew what she was thinking. Although we'd been in the same act for a couple years, she knew almost nothing about my life before the Little Darlings.
"I feel kind of sorry for him," I said as I watched him disappear into the night.
"He reminds me of Fatty Arbuckle," Angie said softly.
"I'm not his niece."
Angie giggled. "Maybe you should have said you were. Maybe he's fabulously rich and was going to leave you all his money!" And we laughed our way back to Mabel's.CHAPTER 3
Saturday's three shows went well enough. The Little Darlings hoofed it through their fourteen-minute musical routine with the flawless timing that comes from months of repetition. The audience applauded generously, and "Mama" — chastened earlier by the emcee — stole no bows. We'd been billed third this week and so finished by ten, a distinct advantage in my book since it left more time for celebration at the end of a long week. Angie and I waited impatiently for Sylvia, the assistant in the magician act billed after the Kanazawa Japs. Sylvia had played Omaha last year and knew of a blind pig that would serve us ... if it hadn't been shut down by now. I hoped it had food too. I was hungry enough to eat a whole pig myself.
We wore our best. Angie and I had brushed the schoolgirl braids into pinned-up styles befitting sophisticated young ladies, and the new hat I'd bought at Younkers in Des Moines two weeks ago made me look at least eighteen. As soon as Sylvia joined us, we headed for the stage door.
The fat man was waiting for us by the gas lamp, dressed in a tuxedo.
"Excuse me, Miss — ah, Darling?"
I was in an end-of-the-week mood. "Uncle Oliver!" I exclaimed buoyantly. "I didn't see you in the audience tonight."
"I wasn't in the audience tonight." He doffed his homburg to acknowledge Angie and Sylvia, then turned back to me. His eyes took in my hair and outfit with a gleam that approved the transformation. "I came by the theater in the hope that I could persuade you to dine with me tonight. I would like to talk with you about a job, something I think will be well worth your while."
I'll just bet. Angie and Sylvia exchanged knowing glances. We'd each had our share of mashers on the make. The missing niece had been a ruse after all. I should have known.
"Thank you kindly, sir, but as you can see, my friends and I have plans for this evening."
"So that my intentions are not misconstrued, I was of course including your friends in my invitation. I have reserved a table at the Blackstone Hotel, reputedly the finest restaurant in the Midwest, where I will be honored to treat you and your friends to anything on the menu."
His gentle caress of the word "anything" would have made an actor proud. And who hadn't heard of the Blackstone? Only headliners could afford to stay there, and they raved about its luxury.
I had no idea if he knew how hungry I was at that moment or how poorly we'd eaten lately, but the memory of the fried meat, cornmeal mush, and peach preserves we'd been served for the past week at Mabel's made me drool for something better. Potluck at the blind pig was likely to be greasy sausages or nothing at all. A nod from Angie and Sylvia clinched the deal. Why not? The price for him would be high. The price for me was small: a curt refusal when he got around to making his "job offer."
"Thank you, sir; we'd be delighted to accept."
He beamed. Without turning his head, he lifted one arm and snapped his fingers. Before I had time to wonder, an enormous Pierce-Arrow hummed out of the darkness and a chauffeur leaped out to open our door.
The Blackstone Hotel lobby was a work of art with enough gold leaf to make Willie Sutton trade in his gun for a chisel. We gawked like rubes at the painted ceilings, fancy mirrors, and plush velvet furniture as we were ushered through to the Orleans Dining Room. A maid took our coats. A fawning maître d' bowed and motioned to a waiter, then led us to a table in the middle of the room.
It was a small table set for two. I waited for the maître d' to realize the obvious, but he maintained his expectant face as he held a chair for me. One look to my right and I caught on. The waiter was seating Angie and Sylvia at another table some feet away. The girls, as frozen with uncertainty as I, looked inquiringly in my direction. My call.
Seeing my mouth open to protest, my host said, "Surely you can have no objection to this arrangement. Your friends are nearby" — he smiled at them and waved his fingers — "and the waiter has been instructed to bring them whatever they desire. Our business is best discussed privately."
Neat. Very neat. And plotted well in advance, which meant he anticipated having to include my friends. I could pitch a fit, demand a larger table, and draw the attention of the entire dining room. Or I could shut up and sit down. I'd come this far. The girls were right there. It was a public restaurant. What was I afraid of? I closed my mouth and sat. Angie and Sylvia followed my lead.
Round one to Uncle Oliver. But I'd be damned if I'd help him out with charming conversation. He could jolly well talk to himself as far as I was concerned. Silently vowing to order the most expensive dish on the menu, I buried my nose in the hand-lettered menu and promptly forgot my resolution.
"Gracious! Lobster? Here? How do they manage that? And pheasant under glass! I always supposed that was made up." My stomach rumbled its appreciation. No wonder Uncle Oliver was fat.
"Would you like a cocktail? Or wine with dinner? Or perhaps both?"
Right out in the open? That was pretty bold of the Blackstone. "My word. Have they bought off the police, then?"
"No doubt. But they also take care to serve liquor in teacups so no one can tell what anyone is drinking. Should an emergency arise, one merely finishes one's tea. Quickly."
I was all admiration. "Could I have champagne?"
"You may have whatever you like, my dear." And he proceeded to place his order with a handsome young waiter for a martini for himself and French champagne for me. When it came in a porcelain teacup accompanied by a plate of pretty hors d'oeuvres, I couldn't help but giggle.
He was, I guessed, in his fifties, but his efforts to appear younger only made him seem older. A dapper gentleman of the Edwardian style, complete with malacca walking stick, mother-of-pearl cuff links, and white spats, he would have been attractive in the days before gluttony fattened his figure and age thinned his hair. To afford the dinner we ordered, he must be rich indeed. I decided that when the proposition was made, I would turn him down gently.
The courses came one after the other with baffling complexity as our conversation wandered from Omaha to Europe, where I had never been but longed to go. He had an urbane and natural wit and a boundless curiosity about my life, no doubt prompted by his need to douse that last flicker of uncertainty about my identity. I found myself talking more freely than I had intended.
"No, honestly, Darling is their real name," I said. "Jock and Francine. And Lizzie is their real daughter, and the boys, Darcy and Danny, are theirs too. I've been with them for several years and they're like family. Francine's the boss. And bossy. But we all get along."
"And now the act is seven children, like the Seven Little Foys."
"That was the idea. Anyway, the Foys broke up a year ago and we're still going strong."
"How long have you been on stage?"
"Twenty-five years, if you count the roles my mother played while she carried me."
His eyebrows shot up and he studied my face closely, looking for wrinkles, I guess. "Is your mother still living?"
I shook my head. "She died after a long illness when I was twelve. She was a talented singer — a headliner. I have her old playbills to prove it."
Talking about my mother brought back the hollow pain I always felt whenever I thought of her death. I was glad when he changed the subject. "What about your father?"
"He left before I was born." I thought he might ask if I was a bastard, which I most definitely am and would have said so to his face, but he did not. I guess it was self-evident. Everyone knew vaudeville people were immoral.
"So you literally grew up on the stage."
"My first role was Moses in the Bulrushes, and I'm told I made a good Baby Jesus later that year. By the time I was three I could memorize lines, so I began acting in scenes for kiddie versions of Romeo and Juliet, Oliver Twist, Peter Pan, and other vaudeville staples."
"I expect you have a good memory."
"A necessity in my business." I glanced over to Angie and Sylvia who were diving into a plate of prawns. Angie caught my eye and sent me a questioning look. I nodded back and smiled that all was well.
"Moving around like that, you could not have attended school. Did you have a governess?"
A governess! What fairy tale did this man live in? I thought of Marie Antoinette, who wondered why the breadless Parisians did not simply eat cake, and stifled a laugh. "Vaudeville kids don't have a schoolroom education but that doesn't mean they are uneducated. I learned to read from my mother, and I still read every book I can get my hands on."
"If Darling isn't your real name, what is?"
Excerpted from The Impersonator by Mary Miley. Copyright © 2013 Mary Miley. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
A fascinating imaginative effort set in the 20's this artist will thrill you with the chase,
Readers are in for a treat! Solid fiction debut--very well done. I received an ARC for review, in paperback form. I prefer audiobook and given what a strong book this was I bet it is awesome in audiobook format! Lots of twists and turns. This is not my normal genre as I read/write Christian historical romance but I thought I'd give it a try and I was well rewarded. The book was fairly clean, too, with few profanities and on-the-page violence. She really captured the flavor of the times. I'd highly recommend this for someone who enjoys secular suspense and mystery. This book has already won an award. Mary Miley has been a journalist for over two decades and her writing skill shows in this novel. Am looking forward to future releases from this talented author.
I am an avid reader of mysteries and find the various annual lists of mystery award winners to be a good way to identify promising books and new authors. Mary Miley’s debut historical mystery The Impersonator which is set in the 1920’s won the 2012 MWA/Minotaur award for Best Crime Novel. When you read the author’s background on the book jacket, it is no surprise that this first novel won such an award. Although this is her first mystery novel, she is an experienced writer, editor, historian and American history instructor at Virginia Commonwealth University with many nonfiction books and articles to her credit. She uses her extensive knowledge of the period to provide a believable depiction of a young woman orphaned at an early age, who has endured homelessness and hunger until finding work playing ingénue roles with a traveling theatrical group. When the show abruptly shuts down, she is unsuccessful in finding another role and in desperation agrees to impersonate a missing heiress. I got so caught up in the story that I read the book in one day and look forward to her next book in what I hope will not just be a sequel but rather a series.
This is a Mystery story. It sure had me confused the whole way through the reading. There's a runaway, the rich family of the runaway,, a vaudeville actress and some bootleggers on the side. I would recommend this book to anyone to read. There were dozens of turns, twists and head scratching going on. I was a bit "huh"? at the start of the book. But it drew me in and became hard to put down. This was great as I always had a spot in my heart for the old vaudeville performers. It's all gone now. Please consider reading this book. You will not be sorry you did.
From the opening page to the final chapter, The Impersonator embodies the essence of one of the novel's central themes-Vaudeville. The audience will be entertained with a family oriented story that lacks cheap thrills and shock value and delivers pure talent and delight. The eager reader will discover a cast of characters that are fully formed and portray the year of 1924 (the young are plucky and determined to enjoy life to the fullest while the older are more reserved, provide the needed voices of reason and are reminders of a forgotten era that was governed by restrictions and traditions). From the opening pages of The Impersonator, we follow the narration of a never say die anti-heroine who has as many secrets and mysteries in her past as the ones that dog her journey and keep returning like a bad penny. In the heart of this novel is the question: what ever happened to Jessamyn Beckett Carr? A classic fictional mystery worthy of the show the reader may have a hard time looking away from that is Mary Miley's The Impersonator. So ladies feel free to bob your hair and grab your cloche hats and fellas grab your dollface and fire up the flivver because Ms. Miley is sending us back to the 1920's. In the end, this was a fresh novel that takes a different approach with the reader. Although mysteries and crimes are spread throughout this fast-paced novel, the narration focuses more on the importance of collecting vital clues and balances discovery with elements of mystery and the "unknown" versus the gruesome and shocking. Fascinating historical details are shared with the reader that kept this reviewer centered to the era and sneaking away from life to join the adventure that waited on her Kindle. So why only 4 stars? Although a fun, absorbing read The Impersonator provided more themed and historical entertainment than a total unpredictable read but still ends as an overall enchanting debut novel that many historical mystery admirers will enjoy.
Can a life of playing different characters on the Vaudeville stage help a young woman pull off the greatest performance of her life? The Impersonator by Mary Miley is a look back into life in the early twentieth century and the differences between the “haves” and the “have-nots.” Leah, orphaned young has grown up on the Vaudeville stage, so when she is approached to act the part of a long-missing heiress, to secure a huge inheritance, she only takes the job because Vaudeville has turned its back on her and she has no idea where her next meal will come from. Can she “become” Jessie and fool those who once knew a younger Jessie and are next in line for the money? Does anyone know what happened to the real Jessie? Could that knowledge make Leah’s Oscar-winning performance all for naught? Could it cost her her life? Does anyone REALLY deserve this windfall? Who can be trusted when money is involved, after all, everyone has their own agenda, right? Mary Miley writes in a smooth and intriguing style, easily drawing me into days gone by. She has created a mystery that begs to be solved with a plot filled with detail! I even rooted for the most likable Leah, not a true heroine, but not a villain, either with her chameleon-like abilities, intelligence and inner strength and self-confidence. Filled with both charming and devious supporting characters, the mix is a wonderful concoction! An ARC edition was provided by NetGalley and Minotaur Books in exchange for my honest review.
Walked in then slowly walked back to res 2
Best I've read in a great while!
If you like reading about vaudeville you might enjoy this story. If you are looking for an interesting mystery involving a person suddenky reappearing after many years then read Brat Farrar by Josephine They - it is a much better story.