Monday, January 20, 2014

HELL IS TOO CROWDED by Harry Patterson (Jack Higgins)

Hell is too Crowded is the fifth novel published by Harry Patterson.  It was released as a hardcover by John Long in 1962, and it is the most mature—both stylistically and thematically—of Mr Patterson’s earliest novels.

Matthew Brady is an American structural engineer who is in London after completing a job in Kuwait.  In the early morning hours Brady is on the tail end of a two day jag when a frightened young woman named Marie Duclos stumbles out of the fog.  Marie is returning home from a party, and she tells Brady a man is following her.

Brady accompanies the young woman to her Chelsea flat where everything changes.  He passed out on the couch, and his next conscious moment is the police questioning him for the murder of Marie.  The rest of the novel is Brady’s attempt to discover who framed him for the murder, and why.

Hell is too Crowded is a brilliantly plotted novel with a depth of setting and atmosphere not previously accomplished by Harry Patterson.  The storyline—at least the hook—is similar to David Goodis’ Dark Passage, but the execution is purely Jack Higgins’ adventure.  Matthew Brady is a man apart—he is completely isolated from the world around him, and the setting and atmosphere denote this isolation from the first moment.  The fog, the near emptiness of the river, and the sound of a ship’s foghorn combine to create an uneasy tension of separation, which is the underlying theme of the novel—

“A ship moved down the Pool of London sounding its foghorn like the last of the dinosaurs lumbering aimlessly through a primeval swamp, alone in a world that was already alien.”

The plotline is straightforward, but it is developed seamlessly; one scene effortlessly leads to the next, and Mr Patterson doles out clues timely, but with an unhurried pace.  The first clue is in the first paragraph, but it isn’t realized until the last pages of the novel. 

Hell is too Crowded is very nearly a perfect thriller.  It is a mixture of noir and adventure, and is written in Mr Patterson’s unique, almost lyrical, prose—

“There was a taste of fog in the air, that typical London fog that drifts up from the Thames, yellow and menacing, wrapping the city in its shroud.”

There are also a few interesting slang terms in the novel, including “grass,” which basically means snitch, and “doss,” which means easy.  There is also a solid joke in the narrative—if you know Harry Patterson was a school teacher—when an homely assistant to one of the villains, a Hindu Priest named Das, is described as “a school mistress.”

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