As Oliver Wendell Holmes once said, ‘We have as many personalities as we have friends.’ He could have added family and colleagues to that, as well. We do have different personas for our different roles, and quite a lot of what we do in life is, I think, dictated by the differences – and the conflicts – between our single, ‘private’ self and our series of ‘public’ ones.
This has always interested in me, and I had it filed away in the back of my mind for several years as a possible subject. However, I didn’t see how I could tackle it until I read a book called Impostors, by Sarah Burton, which is a series of studies of people who lived their whole lives as lies: women who pretended to be men, whose true gender was only discovered when they died; unqualified people who were successful and well-respected professors, clergymen, doctors and psychiatrists, and so on. As Burton says, ‘the idea of the impostor strikes at the very core of our assumptions about identity’ – which is why, of course, it makes such a great subject for a crime novel. Studies of impostors show that they are invariably charming, personable and more willing than most to take risks, that they have higher-than-average IQs, excellent memories, and an almost uncanny ability to read people. This was definitely true of Frank Abegnale, author of the autobiography Catch Me If You Can (made into a film of the same name starring Leonardo Di Caprio and Tom Hanks), and I decided it should be true of my impostor, too, so that the reader would be rooting for him as well as for Inspector Stratton. Real-life impostors tend to prefer ‘closed’ environments, such as the military, schools, universities and hospitals, and for this reason a great deal of An Empty Death is set at the Middlesex Hospital in London, where the imposter pretends that he is a doctor.
An Empty Death is set in 1944, four years after Stratton’s War. By this point, Britain was suffering the miseries of chronic shortages and ever fiercer aerial bombardment. There was far less of the keep-your-chin-up-London-can-take-it ‘Blitz spirit’ associated with the years 1940-41 – people were, quite simply, exhausted. It’s often said – by the nostalgia brigade and, recently, increasingly by those who espouse the ‘Affluenza’ theory that consumption and choice are making us miserable and ill – that there were very few cases of depression and mental breakdown amongst the civilian population of Britain during the war. I felt quite suspicious about this, and research soon showed me that it was one of those ‘facts’ which turns out not to be a fact at all. There’s plenty of evidence to suggest that, because of the huge stigma surrounding mental health issues at the time and the culture of putting on a brave face and not discussing such things, a large number of civilians, both adults and children, suffered in silence for many years. Of course, Freud and his cohorts had been around for a good while, but they were suspiciously un-British, and all that the average citizen knew about them was that ‘it was all about sex’ – another taboo subject. Also, unlike today, when we are deluged with psychobabble and everyone slings it about like nobody’s business, there wasn’t much in the way of vocabulary – for the layperson, at least – to discuss these sorts of problems.
There’s a mystery in the book running parallel to the story of the imposter, involving Jenny’s wife, Stratton. I did this partly because I wanted to bring her more into the heart of the novel, and also because I chanced on a plot which I thought perfectly mirrored the main strand of the book. I was watching either Holby City or Casualty (I love hospital soaps but can never tell those two apart), and there was a plot line envolving an unusual condition called Capgras Syndrome, a disorder which is characterised by a delusional belief that a spouse or other close family member has been replaced by an identical-looking imposter. Most common in patients diagnosed with schizophrenia, it can also occur as a result of other conditions such as brain injury or dementia. Nowadays, treatment would take the form of Cognitive-Behaviourial therapy and/or antipsychotic drugs or Selective Serotonin Reuptake Inhibitors – none of these things, of course, were available in 1944, and sufferers were pretty much left to sink or swim, sometimes with – as in An Empty Death – disastrous consequences.
Although the book is set 65 years ago, the problem of identity theft or wilful assumption of fake personas is highly topical. In 1944, people were far less likely to challenge doctors and members of other ‘professions’ about their judgements, and they were generally more deferential to men and women with upper-class accents, both of which help the imposter greatly. Besides which, the wartime identity card, which every citizen was obliged to carry, bore no photograph, so it could easily be used by someone of the same gender and age group as the rightful owner. But, although we fancy that we have tighter security about these matters today, identity theft is a growing problem, and modern technology works, very often, to the advantage of the fraudster. It’s often done for financial gain, as in the case of Elliot Castro who, aged 16, embarked on a five-year orgy of credit card fraud, spending millions of pounds of other people’s money as he travelled the world, staying in top hotels and buying luxury goods under a series of false identities. The internet helps, too. Plenty of people misrepresent themselves on dating sites by claiming to be younger, slimmer or more successful, or – and men are most often the culprits here – they claim to want a serious, long-term relationship when really they are interested in bedding as many people as possible. Some, however, go further than that. In 2007, Americans Thomas Montgomery and Mary Sheiler, both pretending to be 30 years younger than they actually were, started an internet romance, each falling in love with the other’s fake persona. When Sheiler started a net relationship with Brian Barrett who worked in the same factory as Montgomery and, like him, believed that she was 18 years old, Montgomery murdered him in a jealous rage.
Also, of course, there’s the simple case of people believing what they want to believe. In 2004, Silibil ‘n’ Brains, a Californian hip-hop act who toured with Eminem, appeared on MTV and secured a deal with Sony, were tipped to be the next big thing until it was discovered that they were a pair of students from Dundee who’d never so much as set foot in America (they’d tried rapping in their original accents but had been laughed off stage and so decided to re-invent themselves).
Those are just some of the ones we know about. Human credulity, it seems, is endless – studies have shown that we are far better at telling lies than we are at detecting them. As Sarah Burton, author of Imposters, writes, ‘The impostor does not occupy some cloak and dagger world apart from the rest of us but exists very much in the everyday, in the here and now. He or she may be about to take your temperature or hear your confession. Perhaps he or she is sitting next to you on the Tube or lying next to you in bed. Or even, maybe, reading this…’
An Empty Death is published by Orion