Fear is the Same – Carter Dickson (1956)

“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.”

FearIsTheSameThe 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 TideFire, 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.

Spoilers

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.

End spoilers

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15 thoughts on “Fear is the Same – Carter Dickson (1956)”

  1. If you haven’t read a historical Carr, much less a time travel one, you’re probably hastily scrambling to change the page.

    In fact, for me it was the time-travel aspect that first drew me to Carr’s historicals. 🙂

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  2. I’m afraid I’ve not read this, I don’t even own it at the time of writing, so can’t comment on the content at all, but I’ve always been curious why this was the one Carter Dickson book (Fatal Descent aside, which I can understand being a collaboration and Carr perhaps wanting to keep things simple) not to feature H.M. — if the hallmark of the Carter Dickson titles was that he uased that name for Merrivale, why not publish this as JDC? It’s staggeringly unimportant, but then so are most of my queries in this genre.

    Additionally, if I ever republish this novel, I’m going to put “…the 1795 equivalent of The Expendables ” on the cover 😀

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    1. Ah, yes, I forgot Fatal Descent not having Merrivale in it. And, yes, these are the nerdy questions which matter most! Cleary deserving of an entire blog post.

      Fear is the Same was one of the harder books for me to track down. It is easy to find a $50-200 hardcover copy, but stumbling upon this 1959 Bantam paperback for a few dollars was a real surprise.

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      1. Sorry, I wasn’t being smug in pointint out that there was another CD book without H.M., I just meant that it sort of makes sense that Carr might want to keep that collaboration in his “other” name. Dunno why, but he might.

        If I ever track this down, I’ll be sure to do at least four blog posts on why it’s the onyl “proper” Carter Dickson title without H.M. in it, no fear; my planned post for this coming Saturday is proving to be about as pointless as that would, so I’ll be in good form for such a topic…

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      2. Now that I think of it, I suspect that Fatal Descent was published as Carter Dickson because in 1939 Carr was delivering The Problem of the Green Capsule and The Problem of the Wire Cage under his own name, and he didn’t exceed two titles a year as JDC.

        Fear is the Same is more puzzling. Starting around 1947, Carr was typically only doing one book a year. Fear is the Same is one of the few exceptions, coming out the same year as Patrick Butler for the Defense – 1956. Perhaps his publisher didn’t want two books released under the same name to compete with each other. In fact, a quick glance at my Reviews page suggests that 1941 was the last year that Carr published two books in the same year under the same name (The Case of the Constant Suicides and Death Turns the Tables, both Fell novels by JDC)….until, that is, 1968, with the release of Dark of the Moon and your favorite book, Papa La Bas.

        Clearly there is enough meat here for a mile-long blog post, complete with diagrams and conspiracy theories. Of course, then someone who has actually read one of the autobiographies will blow it all out of the water…

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      3. I would very strongly suspect that it was the publisher who dictated that this be a CD book rather than a JDC one, and precisely for the reasons you’re hinting at: not wanting two JDC novels to compete with each other. My own bibliography has been much complicated by such publisher decisions.

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  3. I’ve not read this yet so I can’t add anything particularly useful here. I do have a hardback copy of the book that I picked up some years ago, but not for any notable amount of money. I had no idea it fetched high prices.

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  4. You always have to keep in mind, when picking up one of his historical novels, that the plots tend to be less elaborate than those found in his regular mysteries. More often than not, they turn out to be hybrids of the action, adventure and (sometimes) the spy genre with a dash of the detective story, but the detection elements are usually of secondary importance.

    A great number of Carr’s historical novels feature an impossible problem: The Bridge of Newgate (a vanishing room), Captain Cut-Throat (an apparently invisible killer) and The Ghosts’ High Noon (shooting in a locked and watched shed). I have not read Papa La-Bas, Deadly Hall and The Hungry Goblin, but they’re labeled as a locked rooms. So that constitutes most of his historical output and gives you something to look forward to as some of these are better than the historicals you have read so far.

    Anyhow, I remember liking Fear is the Same, even if the detective elements were routine at best, but what really was a letdown is that I was completely wrong about the clap of thunder that flung the main characters back in time. I assumed they died in the 1950s time-line and awakened in the past, in a parallel time-line, where they had to do everything all over again. But this time without dying. I believe that would have been a better explanation.

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    1. Yes, despite the weaker mysteries, I’ve savored each of the historicals as I read them. I think that it is more in hindsight, as I gather my thoughts for a post, that I start to really critique the lack of a typical puzzle.

      I’m really looking forward to The Bride of Newgate and Captain Cut Throat because it seems like they’ll have stronger mysteries. Plus, I know that I’ll fall in love with the characters, the history, and the plotting.

      I definitely agree with your comment about the clap of thunder. In fact, the premise of a crime in the future connected with a crime in the past had a ton of potential, but Carr didn’t really play it out. It would have been cool if a clue from the past mystery helped with the future mystery or vice versa, but we didn’t get anything along those lines.

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      1. Great write up Ben. I think you will really get on with Captain Cut-Throat, for me it was unputdownable, and seems to balance everything a lot better than Fear Is The Same, from what you have written here.

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  5. Like TC, I remember liking this but it was a really long time ago that I read it (and in an Italian translation at that) – wish I’d found that Bantam edition so cheaply! I think BOWSTRING MURDERS was reprinted as by “Carter Dickson” having originally appeared as by ‘Carr Dickson” – and then of course there are the Department of Queer Complaints stories under that name too. Doug Greene suggests that the use of the pseudonym was in an effort to keep the brand alive.

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