Like MacLean's When Eight Bells Toll, this book is in fact a crime-noir and a different style from the typical espionage and adventure plot that Higgins normally produced. In the first chapter of the book, readers learn about the American Matthew Brady. He is a structural engineer who had worked internationally when he met a beautiful British woman. After a brief affair, Brady began sending her money in the hope that they would save for a marriage and an average suburban lifestyle. After discovering that she had left the country with the money, Brady falls into a state of intoxication and eventually collapses on a bench in London.
A pretty young woman ends up finding Brady on the bench that night and offers to take him back to her apartment. The woman is obviously a prostitute, but she appears sincere in her concerns. The two take a short stroll beside a dark cemetery and enter the second floor of a large Victorian house. As Brady enters, he notices the face of a man watching them through the bottom window. After a coffee, Brady becomes sleepy and begins to faint on the sofa. His last look before sleep is the man from downstairs looking over the woman's shoulder.
Brady wakes up listening to the detectives talking around him. The generous woman has been horribly mutilated and Brady is the chief suspect. The police does not accept his version of the story and after several months, the narrative finds Brady in prison. Building on his experience as a structural engineer, Brady began designing an escape plan. He must find the real killer and clear his name before the hounds of justice are on his trail.
Needless to say, the crime-noir trope of an average man waking up to a female corpse is a familiar one. The late 1940s and 1950s are ripe for stories like this. The rapid pace, mystery development and problem-solving skills of the main character reflect the likes of Day Keene. The setting, complete with graveyard and seaside house, combined with the central story also reminds me of Edward S. Aarons' early career.
While not a Higgins adventure, Hell Is Too Crowded is still worth the effort. It was enjoyable to find the author immersed into the crime-noir genre. Further, it may have inspired Higgins to write a better, more adventuresome novel in 1971's Toll for the Brave. It has a similar storyline, but focuses more on the high adventure storytelling that he perfected.
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