One of my favorite movie scenes ever is at the beginning of Hitchcock’s “Marnie”. It’s a montage of a young woman, shot from behind or from the neck down, lingering on everything except the face as she makes her way along the platform of a train station, down a hotel corridor, and into her room. We follow her as she repacks her suitcase, discarding anything worn or frumpy, choosing only the new and perfect. Using a nail file, she pries open a compact, revealing a stash of hidden Social Security cards. She flips through them all, choosing one to put into her wallet before tucking the rest securely away. Then she goes into the bathroom for a shampoo, rinsing out the dark, nondescript hair dye and revealing her own glowing blond hair. For the first time we see her face, radiant and smug as a cat—Marnie. The self-satisfaction and the blondness are real, but it takes the rest of the movie to unravel the true story of her background, one so grim that it’s hard to begrudge her the tricks she’s learned to keep it at bay as she makes her way in the world.
Choosing to put on a new identity as easily as one might put on a new hat can be a coping mechanism, the start of an elaborate con, the last resort of a victim fleeing an abuser, the refuge of a fantasist who can no longer face reality. Strategy or stratagem, adopting a new name, a new backstory, a new reality, always makes for an intriguing story. It’s a chance to explore the road not taken—and who among us doesn’t wonder about that?
Here are a few of my favorite books featuring a question of identity:
Brat Farrar by Josephine Tey
Probably the most well-known entry in the group, the grandaddy of identity switch books after Twain’s The Prince and the Pauper. Brat Farrar is a young man on the make, willing to impersonate a missing heir for the chance to inherit an estate of his own. It features lines like, ‘“Aunt Bee has a face like a very expensive cat.”’ Unmissable.
The Ivy Tree by Mary Stewart
Published in 1961, this is one of Stewart’s non-Arthurian books, twisting and turning until the reader hardly knows which way is up. It has nods to Brat Farrar and Jane Eyre—Mary Grey is, like Brat, willing to impersonate a missing heir to get her hands on an estate—but stands entirely on its own as a Gothic suspense novel. Perfect read for a chilly afternoon with a cup of tea and a creaking door in the hall.
But not all characters are after a country house. Some just want a few diamonds, like the irrepressible Kick Keswick in Marne Davis Kellogg’s series, beginning with Brilliant. By day, Kick is the demure, sleekly groomed secretary to an auction house impresario, but by night, she’s an accomplished jewel thief. In addition to her dual identity, Kick assumes the occasional nom de heist, even impersonating a princess when the jewel calls for it. Great fun, especially if read with a kir royale in one hand and a dish of bonbons on the side table.
The Last Mrs. Parrish by Liv Constantine
*If you like your fiction a little edgier, then Liv Constantine’s The Last Mrs. Parrish is an absolute winner. Amber Patterson is a Russian nesting doll of reinvention, polishing the rough edges from her neglected upbringing into forgettable east coast respectability. From there she fashions herself into Jackson Parrish’s dream woman, determined to unseat his current wife. But Amber should be careful what she wishes for…
Girl in Disguise by Greer Macallister
*Greer Macallister is always a great bet, but in Girl in Disguise she outdoes herself, fictionalizing the career of Kate Warne, the first female Pinkerton detective. Set in Civil War-era Chicago and lush with period detail, this book follows Warne as she adopts whatever masquerade the job requires, whatever the cost.
The Last Flight by Julie Clark
The Last Flight by Julie Clark has been described as “one part Strangers on a Train, one part Breaking Bad”; it’s all that and more. Claire Cook, a political wife with a seemingly perfect life, engineers an escape from her gilded cage. She’s planning to disappear and start a new life—a plan that goes entirely wrong when she changes plane tickets with another passenger at the last minute and disaster strikes. A quick and breathless read, but don’t take it on a plane.
In the Garden of Spite by Camilla Bruce
In the Garden of Spite by Camilla Bruce is not quite an identity switch book, but I couldn’t resist adding it to the list. It’s the harrowing story of a respectable farm widow who knows where the bodies are buried—because she put them there. One of my favorite books of 2021, this novel is inspired by the real-life exploits of Belle Gunness, perhaps America’s most prolific female serial killer. It’s an absolutely brilliant look at how a perfectly twisted character can move among the rest of us, unsuspected, carrying out crimes of horrifying audacity. The mask Belle wears is that of normality, possibly the most terrifying disguise of all.