Published by Dutton on February 24, 2015
In a departure from the Department Q police procedurals that Jussi Alder-Olsen usually writes, The Alphabet House combines a war story with a modern crime thriller. At the same time, it does not fit within either genre. The Alphabet House is more a psychological novel, an in-depth exploration of two personalities. For the most part, I enjoyed reading it. I appreciated the thought that went into it. I admired the writing style. I just didn't buy it.
Bryan and James, a pilot British pilot and navigator, are shot down behind enemy lines. Fleeing from pursuers, they board a passing hospital train full of wounded SS officers. They assume the guise of unconscious patients in a car that is mysteriously crowded with comatose officers who do not appear to be wounded. They wind up in a hospital ward, known as the Alphabet House, where their survival depends upon passing themselves off as shell-shocked Nazi officers.
Bryan and James are not the only patients faking mental illness. A long stretch of the book deals with German malingerers who make trouble for James. Why they do so is never quite clear and, while this section of the book is not dull, I'm not sure its contribution to the story justifies the number of words that are devoted to it. The malingerers do add to the action in a tense scene at the end of Part One.
Part Two begins in 1972. Bryan is now a grumpy specialist in gastric diseases and sports medicine. The plot takes Bryan back to Germany in search of a past from which he has not fully recovered. His impersonation of an SS officer during the war comes back to haunt him.
The Alphabet House is interesting but not particularly exciting or emotionally engaging. Its length works against it. The book could easily have been condensed. Two guys lying in bed thinking "I hope we don't get caught" is less than thrilling even with an occasional break the monotony. Only the beginning and the end of Part One generate any tension. Part Two is better, particularly toward the end, but the actions of the German malingers (particularly in Part Two) almost always struck me as contrived, if not abysmally stupid. I just didn't buy the story that Adler-Olsen eventually got around to telling. The narrative drags on long after the climax and some of the last chapters add little of value. I did, however, like the way the story finally ends. The ending has the virtue of honesty.
The quality of Adler-Olsen's prose and the interesting characters he crafted kept me reading. Still, I formed no emotional connection with the characters, in part because I didn't buy into their reality (particularly James) any more than I believed the German malingerers were real. None of that stopped me from wondering what would happen next.
The story is not quite like anything else I've read, so Adler-Olsen scores points for originality. If this had been a shorter, tighter novel with characters who behaved in ways I could accept, I would give it a stronger recommendation. As it stands, I'm not sorry I read it, but I'm disappointed that it did not realize its potential to be an outstanding novel.