The Alphabet House

Dutton. Feb. 2015. 480p. tr. from Danish by Steve Schein. ISBN 9780525954897. $27.95; ebk. ISBN 9780698186187. F
In January 1944, British pilots James Teasdale and Bryan Young, on a reconnaissance mission near Dresden, Germany, are shot down and escape capture by leaping aboard a train reserved for wounded SS men. Their convincing disguise as German soldiers gets them transferred to Alphabet House, a mental hospital near Freiberg. Staying silent and simulating madness, James and Bryan receive electroshock therapy and experimental drugs. Bryan soon learns how to hide his pills, as well as retain his physical and psychological stamina, while James slowly fades into oblivion. After ten months of plotting, Bryan finally escapes. Thirty years later, Bryan has secured a profitable professional career. James's life remains empty and defeated. Their friendship, too, has been marked by betrayal and abandonment.
VERDICT Published for the first time in the United States, crime writer Adler-Olsen's (The Keeper of Lost Causes) 1997 debut was inspired by the experience of the author's father as a senior consultant in psychiatry at numerous mental hospitals in Denmark. But the extensive details of life in an asylum, where playing mental charades was not uncommon during the war, bog down the book's first half. Furthermore, the narrative doesn't introduce enough interaction between Bryan and James at the beginning to convince readers of the special friendship upon which the entire story is based. [See Prepub Alert, 8/18/14.]

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