“In all ages, everything changes. Manners, customs, speech, views on life, even morals – all change. But fear is the same. Only fear is the same.”
The only historical John Dickson Carr book published under the name Carter Dickson, Fear is the Same is the one full length novel in which the pseudonym is used without featuring Henry Merrivale. It feels very much like the other Carr historicals that I’ve read – The Demoniacs and Fire, Burn (I don’t quite count The Witch of the Low Tide as being in the same category). In fact, Fear is the Same neatly straddles these two novels, featuring the adventure and swordplay of The Demoniacs, while mixing in the time travel aspect of Fire, Burn.
Yes, you read that correctly, time travel. If you haven’t read a historical Carr, much less a time travel one, you’re probably hastily scrambling to change the page. Whoa there, it’s alright. I had the same healthy skepticism for this type of story before I accidentally mistook Fire, Burn for The Burning Court. The notion of a historical mystery on its own is actually fairly easy to swallow. Take a good GAD storyline and drop it back in the past a hundred years or so. The times may have changed, but we’re still dealing with the same thing, right? Ok, now comes the part that I’m not going to convince you on. Let’s say that the main characters of said mystery inhabit the 1950s and suddenly just find themselves back in the past.
Yeah, I’d roll my eyes too, because the whole mechanism is just bound to be so problematic. Somehow Carr skirts the entire issue, and he does it so successfully that you don’t even notice. Fear is the Same simply opens in 1795, with hero Philip Clavering and his lover Jennifer Baird in a bewildered state of how they got there. They somewhat recognize the identities of the bodies they inhabit, and yet know through a haze that they are from a future time. A future in which something very bad happens.
“What an irony it is, madam, that a man can’t remember the future!”
It’s in this malaise that Carr constructs a crime in the past, somehow connected to the shadow of a crime in the future. Phil Clavering is a coward, and stricken by illness that will take his life within the year. At least, that is the character that future Phil finds himself inhabiting. But future Phil is a fighter – literally. Throughout the book he’ll use his knowledge of 20th century martial arts to best foe after foe. And he needs to, desperately. Phil finds himself in a most awkward situation, accused of a crime that he didn’t commit.
You see, Phil’s historical self is married to a most vile woman with whom he shares a mutual dislike. He pines for Jennifer, and has made some public statements that he’ll soon rid himself of his wife. This all looks really bad when his wife’s maid turns up dead. In contrived Carr fashion, the maid looks strikingly similar to Phil’s wife, and was disguised as her to cover for the wife being out on a tryst. The accusation is that Phil mistook the maid for his wife in the dark while attempting to free himself from the shackles of marriage.
I never really figured out if this was supposed to be a locked room mystery or not. I’m almost positive it wasn’t. The maid is found strangled in the wife’s bedroom, with one door locked and another that I’m fairly certain (after repeated rereading) was open. There’s a known secret passage, but that is locked from the inside. Technically, anyone in the house could have committed the murder, but suspicion falls on Phil.
The rest of the story focuses on Phil evading capture and trying to clear his name. Unlike The Demoniacs and Fire, Burn, which focus on characters involved in the fledgling London police of the 18th century and Scotland Yard of the 19th century, here we have a hero on the opposite side of the law. Whereas the other books focus much of Carr’s historical detail on the early police systems of the day, Fear is the Same fixates more on the cultural shift of The Regency era.
With The French Revolution a recent memory, aristocracy is thoroughly out of style. Fashion is shifting from outward luxury to more simple muslin clothes. Lacking heavy cloth pockets, women are employing the reticule, an early form of the purse. It’s this sort of detail that Carr layers into the story. And hair powder. You will become an expert on hair powder. It’s elements such as this that make the Carr historicals so much fun. You can hardly make it through a chapter without pausing to read up on some obscure fact.
The reader also encounters a number of historical figures, such as George Augustus Frederick – then Prince of Wales, later King George IV, and Richard Sheridan – a playwright and owner of the Drury Lane theatre. The presence of such figures in a Carr historical is nothing new. He gets a bit carried away in this one though. The climax of the book features the 1795 equivalent of The Expendables – every historically significant character Carr could think of – engaged in a high tension standoff.
I had high hopes for Fear is the Same coming in. Several comments that I’ve read suggest that some hold this to be the best of Carr’s historicals – a title commonly bestowed on The Devil in Velvet and Fire, Burn. The story is fun, the historical details are mesmerizing, and even more so than other works by the author that I’ve read, this one is action packed. The mystery, however, may be the weakest.
To be fair, none of the Carr historicals that I’ve read so far are heavy on Carr’s trademark impossible crime – save for The Witch of the Low Tide. Fire, Burn is probably the strongest, with a mysterious shooting in a closed hallway observed by multiple witnesses. The Demoniacs comes painfully close to delivering a murder in an apartment with the one entrance guarded, but Carr for some reason chose to immediately point out an avenue for escape. In both cases, Carr delivers a somewhat clever solution that provides a twist beyond the complexity of the crime visible on the surface.
With Fear is the Same, I’m just confused. As mentioned above, this doesn’t even seem to be in the realm of an impossibility – there is a clear entrance into the murder room and there is no suggestion that anyone was even awake at the time of the murder. Anyone in the house could have committed the crime, but that avenue isn’t even explored, as the suspicion is pointed immediately at Phil. As open ended as the crime seems, the solution kind of veers in an unexpected direction and could have been the solution for a completely locked room mystery – albeit not a satisfying one.
This puts Fear is the Same on similar footing as The Demoniacs. They both contain an engaging plot, plenty of action, and move with a sense of urgency. Both books are strong in terms of historical flourish. Where they both fall down is the mystery. The mysteries are tantalizingly close to being fulfilling, and yet fall well short of Carr’s normal standards. In both cases, it almost seems as the author had a grander vision of the mystery than what he managed to capture on the page. The Demoniacs wins here, as there is an element of cleverness to the solution. Fear is the Same falls flat on the solution, although I can’t even offer an analogy without veering into spoilers.
And so to spoilers – I’m going to directly discuss the “how” of the crime, although I’m not going to explicitly discuss the solution. Regardless, I would avoid this section unless you’ve read the book.
I suppose that the cleverness of the murder is that we think that the killer must have been in the house, whereas they gained entrance via a locked door. This theoretically could have been a completely locked room scenario – there is no reason to have had one of the doors open. Perhaps Carr wasn’t feeling the need for that type of mystery and felt that the “who” of the mystery would be the better surprise.
Well, no point complaining about the lack of a locked room. The solution as it is was disappointing enough. It basically boils down to “oh, the seemingly locked door was trivial to unlock.” Even that isn’t really interesting as the lockedness (is that a word? No? Okay) of the door was never stressed to a level to be meaningful.