Thursday, April 6, 2017

On the Shelf at Paragraphs - "The Alphabet House"

“The Alphabet House” Author: Jussi Adler-Olson
Published by Dutton
Trade Paperback released Mar 22, 2016
ISBN 9781101983973
Mystery and thrillers written by Scandinavian authors have been popular for several years and burst onto the American market with “The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo.” Many, such as the novels by Alan Furst and Henning Mankell, have been turned into series broadcast on British TV and PBS. I was surprised recently when browsing through Netflix to find films based on Danish author Jussi Adler-Olsen’s Department Q series. I enjoyed the movies -- although darker and with less of the dry humor which makes the books memorable -- and went back to see what I knew about this author. I discovered his fascinating debut novel from 1997 that was first published in the United States in 2015, following the success of the Department Q series.

“The Alphabet House” begins with a World War II reconnaissance mission near Dresden, Germany. Intelligence believes the Nazis are building new factories that could turn the tide of the war. Boyhood friends, two RAF pilots James Teasdale and Bryan Young are shot down. They know they will be executed if caught, so with an enemy patrol in pursuit, they manage to jump aboard a train reserved for senior SS soldiers wounded on the eastern front. In a moment of desperation, they throw two patients off the train and take their places, hoping they can escape later. Unknowingly, they now are assumed to be elite SS troopers with battle fatigue. While "[a]n SS officer could not be brought home insane"—"normally there was…an injection and a coffin"—the Nazis secretly hospitalized the more important ones. Their deceit works and James and Bryan end up in the Alphabet House, a mental hospital located far behind enemy lines, where German doctors subject their patients to daily rounds of shock treatments and experimental drugs. The pilots’ only hope of survival is to fake insanity until the war ends, but their friendship and courage are put to the ultimate test when James and Bryan realize they aren’t the only ones in the Alphabet House feigning madness.

James and Bryan find themselves confined with and harassed by three sadistic malingerers: Kröner, an "enormous, gnarled figure [with a] pockmarked face"; Lankau, a "broad-faced monster"; and Stich, their puppeteer. Bryan, who does not understand or speak German, is unknowingly impersonating a high-ranking SS officer with a reputation for violence and contacts in high places in the Third Reich. Unable to speak, or to communicate with one another, they are left to suffer in silence. James, retreats into a stupor of silence to avoid his misery. Bryan remains obsessed with the idea of escape.

But Adler-Olson tells us in his author’s note that this is not a war novel. As the son of a psychiatrist he grew up around the mentally ill and asylums of the fifties and sixties. “I got to know a few patients who – through the eyes of a naïve, alert child – I suspected of simulating their mental illness.” He asked himself, “is it possible to preserve oneself and one’s mind in a situation like this if one isn’t really ill?” “The Alphabet House” is the result of his desire to combine his interest in World War II and his study into the treatment of the mentally ill, especially during the war.

Ultimately this is a riveting tale with meticulously researched historical detail that explores the conflict between loyalty and survival with nuance and depth. I will warn this is not a novel for the faint of heart or for those seeking a lighthearted escape.