Publisher: Hesperus Press Ltd
Publication Date: 11 August 2014
Format: Paperback, 522 pgs
Source: Personal Library
Translated from the Danish by Steve Schein
This story is split into two parts with different settings. The setting of the first part is WWII Germany. However, this is not really a war story but more of a psychological wartime thriller about two RAF pilots' harrowing experience after escaping from death and finding themselves in a more dangerous position.
James Teasdale and Bryan Young are from the British flight crew. They are two out of the twelve crew to have selected for a mission. Their job is to take photographs of the aeroplane factories at some designated locations and map out the area thoroughly, including the railway network around Dresden. The Intelligence had a hunch that these factories produce synthetic fuel and that they could lend impetus to new German V-bomb projects. And after James and Bryan have completed their jobs, they would rejoin through formation on its way back to England.
Unfortunately, the bad weather is just the beginning. Despite the place is heavily guarded, they managed to have the photos taken but in the end, they couldn't escape the fate of having their plane shot down. Still, Lady Luck decided to give them a chance as they parachuted out of the plane before it landed. On cold ground, it made it even harder for them to run but they have no other options. They jumped into a train after spotting a railway line. A transported hospital train, it is the start of their nightmarish trip after they have swapped places with two wounded and barely conscious SS officers. They later learnt that the patients sharing the same carriages with them are all mentally ill, and their destination is the Alphabet House, a secure mental institute for high-ranking officers damaged by war. The other threat they are to face is four malingerers within their ward who would do anything for their own greed and freedom.
In the second part of the story, the scenario changed and thirty years have passed. Germany was capitulated; Bryan is moving on with his own business in England and James' life remains unknown after Bryan managed to escape from the Alphabet House alone. It was only a visit from Captain Wilkens, a former intelligence officer whom Bryan had briefly met after the rescue that makes Bryan want to dig up into the past, again. He is set to find James at any costs, but that also means crossing paths with his tormentors once again, those malingerers from the Alphabet House.
I think the premise is intriguing, but what also makes this story an interesting read is James and Bryan. They may be college mates and combat buddies, but their personality differ vastly and at times it seems it is impossible that they could work together. James seems to have the say and make most decisions under many circumstances, while Bryan is the simple and more practical one. It would be rather interesting and amusing to see their personality clash under other (normal) circumstances, but with this gloomy setting it just complicates matters.
Alphabet House is an extremely intense psychological thriller that had me at the edge from the start till the end. Jussi Alder-Olsen is well known for his Department Q series, which I have yet to explore, thinking that this standalone would be a great start to familiarise with his writing style and the storytelling. And I have to say they didn't disappoint me. His prose is wonderful; and the pace and the intensity are excellent. It had me thinking about friendship, love and survival all in all; it was both a compelling and thought-provoking read. I found myself at a loss for words after reading the last page because I was still grasping of the meaning of the outcome. Bottom line, I was simply blown away by this story. I think this would be one of my top reads this year.