Select one of the keywords
The Alphabet House    by Jussi Adler-Olsen order for
Alphabet House
by Jussi Adler-Olsen
Order:  USA  Can
Dutton, 2015 (2015)
Hardcover, CD, e-Book
* *   Reviewed by Hilary Williamson

I've been reading and enjoying Jussi Adler-Olsen's quirky Department Q mysteries since their first North American release. Now here's something rather different. The Alphabet House is a psychological novel set in World War II Nazi Germany and later in 1970s England and Germany.

The protagonists are two best friends, James Teasdale and Bryan Young, who become British pilots together. Chosen for a photo-reconnaissance mission near Dresden, Germany, they are shot down and on the run for their lives. With soldiers and dogs on their heels and expecting to be shot if caught, they jump aboard a train carrying senior SS soldiers wounded on the eastern front. Unseen by the sparse staff, they finish off two of them and take on their identities.

What they didn't realize is that these men are mentally ill and that any suspected of faking it will be immediately executed. So they work hard to play their parts and though they are often in view of each other, can risk no communication. The train takes them to an institution (nicknamed the Alphabet House by nurses), where they endure the treatments of the day - experimental drugs and regular electroshock. Bryan tries to contact James to plan an escape but James inexplicably avoids him.

Bryan eventually realizes why - they are not the only ones faking it. James had overheard several malingerers whispering at night - these monsters 'feasted on tales of their atrocities and tried to outdo one another'. They feigned madness to escape the front, after stealing several tons of valuables. And they gradually grew suspicious of James and (especially) of Bryan. Fortunately for James, one of the nurses, Petra, grew fond of him and helped him, despite the evil reputation of the identity he had assumed.

Bryan escapes, though he barely survives the attempt and is unable to bring James with him. Though he leaves no stone unturned he's unable to find out his friend's fate, but does learn that the hospital was destroyed in 1945. Eventually, in 1972, he returns to Germany, hoping to learn what happened to James, believing that his friend is dead. He doesn't tell his wife Laureen what he is doing or why; she grows suspicious and follows him. And in Germany, they encounter the monsters of Bryan's nightmares, who believe that he has come back for the treasure.

The Alphabet House is well researched and Adler-Olsen masterfully develops a most intriguing premise, leading up to a violent, action-packed finale and a credible conclusion. If you enjoy noir psychological novels, then this is one you should read.

Note: Opinions expressed in reviews and articles on this site are those of the author(s) and not necessarily those of BookLoons.

Find more Historical books on our Shelves or in our book Reviews