We all wear masks. In the various parts of our lives, we present different faces to the world. Often it is a form of self-preservation. We want to be liked, valued, respected, feared. Sometimes it is because we desire something we are afraid that our real self would be unable to get: a new contract with a client, for example; a date with John/Joan from next door.
Occasionally, it is because we have something we wish to hide. Something dark, perhaps. Something deadly.
In my new thriller, The Liar’s Room (published by Penguin), identity is at the heart of the mystery. Or mysteries, I should say, because although almost all of the action takes place in a single room, involving just two main characters, nobody is quite who they seem to be. Susanna, on the face of it, is a counsellor. Adam, a young man, is her client. He wants her help, he says, and Susanna offers it, but very quickly it turns out that Adam isn’t the only one with a troubled past. As the story unfolds, their lies begin to trap them. The way out, for one of them at least, is hidden behind their masks...
Of course, fake identities have a rich and varied presence in fiction. In no particular order, here is my top 10.
The Percy Jackson series by Rick Riordan
The teacher who is really an avenging demon, the sculptor who is really Medusa — plus, of course, the boy who is really the son of Poseidon, with all the powers that lineage confers. Riordan’s series is built on the concept of fake identity, in the most exciting, reality-transforming way.
The Handmaid’s Tale by Margaret Atwood
I was first introduced to this during English Literature lessons at school, and like many of you, I’m sure, I’ve been relishing the outstanding performance of Elisabeth Moss as Offred in the recent TV version. It is an incredibly powerful tale, not least for the way it depicts so vividly how the imposition of fraudulent identities (or, perhaps, non-identities) can be used to dehumanise victims and facilitate the most horrendous crimes. In Gilead, fake identity is a weapon of the most devastating kind.
Ready Player One by Ernest Cline
Cline takes the concept of fake identities into the age of the internet — and significantly beyond. In the year 2045, virtually everyone uses the OASIS, a virtual reality universe, to escape who they really are and to construct the avatar they want to be. In fact, the real world is such a dump, it is really only your identity in the OASIS that counts. Or is it? The book moves along at such a pace, it is easy to overlook the powerful and very timely message at its core.
The Seven Deaths of Evelyn Hardcastle by Stuart Turton
Another “crime” novel in which assumed identity is key. Our protagonist, Aiden, must solve the murder of Evelyn Hardcastle, by re-living the day of the killing over and over, each time in somebody else’s body. Not only that — part of the mystery is the identity of Aiden himself. Why is he being forced to endure the trial he is, and why is somebody else so desperate to see him fail? It’s the literary equivalent of Cluedo meeting Inception, with a healthy dose of Groundhog Day thrown in.
The Woman in White by Wilkie Collins
Who is the woman of the title? It is the mystery that recurs in various forms throughout Collins’ multi-voice novel, and — it turns out — is the question the entire narrative has been constructed to resolve. Another novel in which the physical likeness between two women — here Laura Fairlie and Anne Catherick – becomes the cause of their crossed identities, to the extent that one of them is buried under a mislabelled gravestone, and the other is committed to an asylum. Nightmarish stuff.
The Likeness by Tana French
French is one of my favourite crime authors. This, her second novel, revolves around the physical resemblance of Detective Cassie Maddox to murder victim Lexie Madison, and involves Cassie going undercover as Lexie and trying to tempt the murderer out of hiding to finish the job. With something of The Secret History about the story, it is a bold conceit, and one that only a writer of French’s skill could carry off.
Twelfth Night by William Shakespeare
Fake and mistaken identities are central to Shakespeare’s comedy, which touches on themes of sexual identity, transvestism, and indeed the nature and value of gender itself. The main plot focuses on the love-triangle between Duke Orsino, Olivia and Viola, who is disguised for most of the play as a young man named Cesario. The duke loves Olivia, Viola loves the duke, and Olivia loves “Cesario”. Cue a show-stealing Malvolio in his yellow stockings...
A Tale of Two Cities by Charles Dickens
The most famous fake identity in all of literature? (If you don’t know the story, it is perhaps best to stop reading here.) Charles Darnay, a brave French aristocrat, is sentenced to die under the blade of the guillotine, but he is saved at the last by Sydney Carton, who is presented at first as a drunk and a cynic. Assuming Darnay’s identity, Carton sacrifices himself in Darnay’s place. Cue one of Dickens’s most famous lines (perhaps almost as famous as the novel’s opening sentence): “It is a far, far better thing that I do, than I have ever done.”
The Talented Mr Ripley by Patricia Highsmith
One of the great characters in fiction, Tom Ripley is charming, dapper and utterly amoral — a con artist and eventual serial killer who somehow makes you smile. In the first of the Ripley books, he assumes the identity of Dickie Greenleaf, after first battering him to death with an oar. But when the false identity catches up with him, he is obliged to kill again. Even so he finds himself trapped, until his true identity offers him a way out.
The Harry Potter series by JK Rowling
Rowling uses fake identities on numerous occasions throughout the Harry Potter series, and even invents a potion that allows characters to morph, temporarily, into others. But to my mind, her most triumphant application of the device comes in her depiction of Severus Snape. Perhaps I am cheating here slightly, because Snape never actually pretends to be someone else. Yet from book one to book seven (that’s more than 4,000 pages according to Google), we are left doubting his true identity – friend or foe? Enemy or ally? – and just when we think we’ve got it sussed, Rowling turns the tables on us again.
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