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Originally published Saturday, June 30, 2012 at 5:00 AM

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"Skios": Michael Frayn's novel of mistaken identity on a Greek island

"Skios," the latest novel by British author Michael Frayn, is an entertaining but slightly creaky tale of mistaken identity, set in a think tank on a small Greek island.

Special to The Seattle Times

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by Michael Frayn

Metropolitan, 257 pp., $25

British writer Michael Frayn's novels and plays can range from the heady ("Copenhagen," "A Landing on the Sun") to the farcical — his play "Noises Off" and, now, his new novel, "Skios."

While "Skios" flirts with tricky questions of identities assumed and identities lost, it operates in pure slapstick mode. Unlike earlier Frayn gems in which plot twists and their philosophical reverberations sneak up on you unnoticed, "Skios" couldn't be more ornately overt in its narrative machinations. It's readable, entertaining and peppered with droll one-liners ("Even men sometimes notice whether they're married or not"). But it also feels a bit creaky.

Oliver Fox is the compulsive, risk-addicted impersonator who sets events in motion when, stepping off a plane on the Greek island of Skios, he lets himself be mistaken for the distinguished Dr. Norman Wilfred, scheduled to give a keynote address at a prestigious foundation on the island.

This isn't the first time Oliver's done something like this. Past charades have included "being" an undertaker, a new son-in-law and a visiting Danish parliamentarian. This time he doesn't know what he is exactly, only that he has "Dr." in front of his name and that people are excited to see him.

In the meantime, the real Dr. Wilfred is stranded without his luggage in a villa he thinks belongs to the foundation, until a stream of unlikely visitors forces him to realize it's not.

Frayn alternates between the stripping away of the real Dr. Wilfred's sense of himself and Oliver's building of his "Dr. Wilfred" edifice into a teetering and ever more unlikely invention. "Skios" also skewers the think-tank types, some of them charlatans themselves, who buy all too easily into Oliver's masquerade. But the shenanigans never quite soar as intended in this brittle comedy.

Michael Upchurch is the Seattle Times arts writer:

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