To crash one’s plane is terrifying, but to crash one’s plane and land behind enemy lines must be a pilot’s worst nightmare. In The Alphabet House, Jussi Adler-Olsen imagines an even worse fate for a pair of British pilots who’ve just crash landed near Freiburg, Germany in late 1943. To escape capture, James Teasdale and Bryan Scott manage to climb aboard a hospital train and take the places of two SS officers there. But the train isn’t taking them to an ordinary hospital. The train takes them to a new mental hospital where experimental treatment tries to bring SS officers back from madness.
The first half The Alphabet House, set in the Freiburg hospital, is deliciously frightening. Scott and Teasdale have to feign post-traumatic stress disorder so that they are not discovered and shot. (Because the pilots are out of uniform and ditched their identification, the rules of engagement don’t apply to them.) They’re subjected to pharmacotherapy that leaves them lethargic and unfocused. The eletroshock treatments are worst. To top it all off, Teasdale and Scott discover that they’re not the only fakers in their ward. Teasdale overheard three SS officers discussing their crimes and their plans to divert a train car full of stolen treasure for after the war. When they realize they’ve been heard, the three men torment Teasdale until it’s clear that he’s not faking his trauma anymore. The first half concludes when Scott manages to escape, but has to leave Teasdale behind.
The second half takes place some twenty years later. Bryan Scott has built a life for himself back in Coventry as a doctor and pharmaceutical salesman. But he he is haunted by having to leave his best friend behind in hell. In 1972, he tries one last time to find his friend James Teasdale. His investigation kicks up secrets that had been safely buried for decades. A trio of men in Freiburg will do anything to stop Scott from exposing them as escaped war criminals.
The Alphabet House is written with the quick pacing that I’ve come to expect from thrillers. Adler-Olsen, after all, got started as a mystery writer. Because of the setting in a mental asylum and the treatment of mental illness in this book, I wish that Adler-Olsen had let things simmer slowly instead of racing ahead. There’s no subtext in The Alphabet House. Adler-Olsen takes you into the heads of his narrators and even some of the antagonists to let you know exactly why they’re doing what they’re doing. This strips the book of any poignance that it might have achieved. I feel this could have been a stellar psychological thriller if the first half of the book had been the entire book or if Alder-Olsen hadn’t stuck with the thriller formula.
I received a free copy of this ebook from NetGalley, in exchange for an honest review. It will be released 24 February 2015.