When I read Jussi Adler-Olsen’s The Keeper of Lost Causes, Book #1 in his Department Q series, I quickly realized why he is an international bestselling and award-winning author – and I was hooked. Although I guess it’s predictable that Scandinavian thriller authors all get compared to Stieg Larsson, Jussi Adler-Olsen has his own unique style and his explorations of the human psyche are just as addictive. So it was a no brainer that I would choose to read The Alphabet House, his new stand-alone historical psychological thriller. The bottom line question it asks is, “What would you do to survive?” Sounds simple and it’s anything but. If you’re a thriller fan looking for a read that will give you goose bumps, look no further. Be sure to enter our pay-it-forward giveaway for your chance to win The Alphabet House!
Bryan and James grew up together in England. They believed they were invincible as many young boys do. They loved the idea of daring adventures like the ones they read about in books. For example, there was the time they built a hot-air balloon from bits and scraps, and then tried to fly it off the cliffs while on vacation. That could have ended in tragedy if they hadn’t rescued each other from an almost deadly plunge onto the rocks below. They always had each other’s backs, more like brothers than friends.
So it seems only natural that during World War II, they would volunteer to become pilots together and team up to fly on a highly secretive and important photo recon mission behind enemy lines in Germany. What an adventure that promised to be. Although they both have secret concerns, they are also really excited by the prospect. The recon information they are being sent to gather could be vital to ending the war.
But in the middle of the mission, things go terribly wrong and they are shot down behind enemy lines in the middle of winter. To say they are ill-prepared for that possibility would be an understatement. They aren’t even certain of their position but they know they only have moments for some wild-hair seat-of-the-pants planning if they are to stay alive. They passed a railroad not long before they crashed so that seems like their best hope for getting back over the border, if they can make it that far before being captured.
Once they are able to scramble aboard a slower moving train, they realize they are anything but safe since the train seems filled with SS officers and soldiers. It’s one of those out of the frying pan and into the fire moments; however, they know they will never make it on foot because patrols searching for them are everywhere. Luckily, they find a train car containing critically injured soldiers coming back from the Eastern front, soldiers who are either completely unconscious or who have passed away without anyone noticing. Extremely desperate times call for desperate measures so they dump two bodies overboard after stealing their clothing and then take their places, hoping to feign unconsciousness and escape notice long enough to figure out how to escape. It’s a mad plan but it seems like their only hope.
“It felt damp as he lay down. ‘I’d rather you told me what you think the orderlies will say when they see us. We can’t fool them, James.’
‘If you keep your mouth shut and pretend to be unconscious they won’t suspect anything, don’t worry. There are probably more than a thousand wounded soldiers on this train.’
‘The ones in here seem to be special…’
A clanking metallic sound from the car in front made them stop short and shut their eyes. The sound of steps grew louder, passed them by, and continued into the next carriage. Bryan opened his eyes a fraction and caught a glimpse of a uniform as the figure disappeared.
‘What about the needles?’ Bryan said quietly. James glanced over his shoulder. The rubber tubing hung limply beside the bed. ‘You won’t get me to stick one of those in my arm.’
The expression on James’ face sent shivers down his spine.
James was out of bed without a sound and grabbed hold of Bryan’s arm. Bryan stared wildly at him. ‘No, you don’t!’ he hissed, horrified. ‘We have no idea what was wrong with these soldiers. It might be dangerous!’ A second later, Bryan’s gasp told James that such deliberations were now superfluous. Bryan stared incredulously at the needle that was buried deep into the bend in his elbow, the rubber tube still swinging. James had thrown himself back into the neighboring deathbed.
‘You needn’t be afraid, Bryan. Whatever the soldiers suffered from won’t kill us.’
‘How do you know? They didn’t have any wounds. They could have had terrible diseases.’
‘Would you rather be shot than take that chance?’”
What they don’t realize is that many of the SS officers and soldiers in this train car are suffering from mental trauma caused by war experiences in addition to any physical wounds. This train is not headed toward the border but farther into Germany, destined for what passes during wartime for a secret mental hospital known only as The Alphabet House. It’s a remote place to hide high-ranking officers who the public cannot be allowed to see for fear of destroying the Aryan super-soldier image portrayed in Hitler’s disinformation campaigns.
Bryan is particularly terrified because he doesn’t speak a word of German, so his only recourse is to appear unconscious and when that is no longer possible to drool and look vacantly befuddled by everything around him – something he legitimately feels to some extent since he understands nothing being said. James, on the other hand, is fairly fluent in German, and that proves to be a blessing and a curse since he is only too aware of the imminent danger they are in even when things look quite peaceful on the surface to someone as unaware as Bryan.
Not only that but James and Bryan are portraying cunning and ruthless high-ranking SS officers despised by some of the lower ranking soldiers on their ward. Their “namesakes” are officers who could not have known each other so they have to behave as if they are strangers, something Bryan seems unable to comprehend once he “regains” consciousness. Bryan cannot understand why James won’t at least try to communicate so they can plot their escape, because escape is all Bryan can think about between bouts of experimental shock treatments and rounds of mind-numbing meds – meds he has begun to secretively spit out and hide inside his metal bed posts.
Because James understands German, he more quickly realizes something Bryan can’t comprehend yet. They are not the only ones in their ward feigning mental illness. There are others who are masters at malingering and who are acting as a ruthlessly cohesive unit to protect each other. And those others are determined to survive undiscovered until the end of the war no matter how many fellow mental patients they have to butcher to do it.
James and Bryan both know they will die instantly and horribly if they are discovered to not be German; however, James also knows the only small ghost of a chance either of them have of surviving is to also remain undiscovered for feigning their mental illness by the malingerers. Unfortunately the malingerers seem to be taking an undue interest in him, sometimes treating him like a pet and other times taking out their rage on him as if their instincts tell them something isn’t legit with him. If they are given any reason to suspect he or Bryan is coherent enough to hear or understand their whispered plots in the middle of the night, their death sentences will be carried out just as swiftly and horribly as if they had been discovered to be British. To say James is living in constant terror would be a gross understatement.
Can either James or Bryan survive at all, much less with their minds intact and even slightly sane? Will the malingerers finally catch on to the British deception in their midst? As the war tide changes, will any of the inmates of The Alphabet House survive or will they be liquidated in an effort to permanently hide the embarrassment they represent to The Third Reich? Will Bryan finally find a way to escape this heavily guarded hellhole and, if so, will he be able to even communicate with much less convince James to escape with him? What will become of these boyhood friends?
Bryan and James may be best friends but they really only discover how different they are as people when put in the middle of a more brutish situation than either could have imagined. How they and the people around them in The Alphabet House respond to their unimaginable circumstances reflects both their collective and personal inner strengths and weaknesses. In the above synopsis, I didn’t mention a light shining in the darkness of The Alphabet House, Petra, a German nurse. I have to mention her because she is a faint thread of empathy in a place that seems to have forgotten empathy can exist, but that’s all I’m going to say about her.
I have loved Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Department Q thrillers and I love his new stand-alone novel, The Alphabet House, just as much. It’s a character-driven psychological thriller in the most literal sense. I came to care deeply about our two desperate protagonists. It was also fascinating and at times despairing to see how human beings devolve in inhumane conditions. The author’s father was a psychiatrist and Adler-Olsen grew up around Denmark’s “insane asylums.” He didn’t write this novel as a war novel but rather as a look at how institutionalized mentally ill have been treated over time. As a child, he was fascinated by some patients who he felt might be more in retreat from the world than actually ill. Could they remain sane amidst insanity and the extreme “curative” treatments they received?
I’m recommending The Alphabet House for psychological thriller fans. It’s a complex combination of insidious psychological terror interspersed with nail-biting sudden wild rollercoaster rides. And it doesn’t help at all to know who the bad guys are. So be sure to enter our giveaway!
FYI: I love this Seattle interview with Jussi Adler-Olsen (conducted in English). If you want to learn more about him and his approach to storytelling, this is a great way to do it.
Can’t wait to read it?
The Alphabet House was published on February 24, 2015 in the U.S. and in August 2014 in Europe, so it’s available from your favorite online bookseller below (or in the right column for iBooks). Just click on the button/link and get it to read now!
I’d love to get your comments on The Alphabet House, Jussi Adler-Olsen or his other work, and/or this review.
Click here to read our review of The Keeper of Lost Causes from Jussi Adler-Olsen’s bestselling Department Q series.
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One lucky reader will win an ARC (advance readers copy) of The Alphabet House by Jussi Adler-Olsen!
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