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by Jussi Adler-Olsen and Steve Schein, trans. Read by Graeme Malcolm
Penguin Audio, February 2015
Unabridged pages
ISBN: 1611763649

Buy in the UK | Buy in Canada

After British pilots James Teasdale and Bryan Young are shot down over Germany, they hop aboard what turns out to be a long train taking wounded soldiers home or to hospitals for treatment. With nowhere to run and with the Nazis closing in on them, James and Bryan take the place of two dead SS officers and toss their bodies out an open window. They decide to play dead and agree to remain mute because Bryan speaks no German at all while James can understand the language but is not fluent enough in it to pass as a native speaker.

They wind up in a ward of officers recovering from shell shock, a place nicknamed Alphabet House because all of their diagnoses are coded with letters and numbers that no one seems to comprehend. There, they are subjected to shock treatment and experiments with dangerous drugs. They also experience abuse from some of the other patients.

They are unable to be alone and communicate with one another, so both James and Bryan are locked in silent, frightening, and isolated worlds. The narrative alternates between their perspectives. After a while, James and then Bryan discover that they are not the only frauds in the ward. A few are just hapless soldiers trying to find a safe haven until the war ends. But a trio of malingerers turns out to be dangerous thieves and murderers, who are willing to kill anyone they think might recognize them from the past or somehow get in their way.

ALPHABET HOUSE is an earlier work than the Department Q series that has put Jussi Adler-Olsen in the top rank of the Scandinavian suspense and procedural wave. The new translation of this 2007 work is a sign of the author's sales power. Apparently, Adler-Olsen's father was a psychiatrist, and he grew up in the very type of institution that figures in this novel and some later ones. His own father's progressive attitudes stand in stark contrast to some of the barbaric methods exhibited in this work—treatment all too common well through the 1950s and beyond. However, ALPHABET HOUSE lacks the colorful cast of the Department Q novels, and the author has honed his writing skills as well.

Graeme Malcolm, a talented audio performer, has recorded other works by Adler-Olsen, including his most recent one, THE MARCO EFFECT. His versatile talent is obvious in every audio he narrates. James, the elder pilot, sounds the more confident of the two to begin with, but as the effects of the treatments set in, Malcolm winnows down James' voice while Bryan tries to rally. It would have been easy, as well, to make the German patients and commandants into caricatures, but Malcolm tries to flesh out whatever he is given to work with, and the results are impressive.

Though ALPHABET HOUSE reflects the budding Adler-Olsen, some of his fans will enjoy a peek at the author's oeuvre before he launched Department Q. In this well-researched work and chilling look inside the Nazi mental health system, listeners interested in psychological thrillers will find a harrowing tale indeed.

§ An avid audiophile, Karla Jay is a retired professor of English and Women's & Gender Studies. She is a frequent contributor to this site.

Reviewed by Karla Jay, March 2015

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Contact: Yvonne Klein (ymk@reviewingtheevidence.com)

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