“The Alphabet House” by Jussi Adler-Olsen – Book Review

Confession time…. this novel has been on my TBR a long time.  It is the title that has been on my NetGalley shelf the longest. The reason I requested it was solely on the basis of the author as I thoroughly enjoyed his “Dept Q” series of mysteries. This stand-alone is a WWII historical mystery and the author’s first novel!

Why did I wait so long???? Well, the book is very long, (over 500 pages), and I was waiting to get in the mood for a WWII novel.  With all the sadness and chaos in the world, it seems that lately I’ve been more in the mood for something a little less intense.

About the book:

The Alphabet House (1997) – During World War II, two British pilots, James and Bryan, are shot down over Germany. They know death will be waiting for them if captured. 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 to escape later. Instead, they 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. Their only hope of survival is to fake insanity until the war ends. But soon James and Bryan realize they are not the only ones in the Alphabet House feigning madness.

The first half of the novel is set during World War II and the second half takes place thirty years later.

“Captivity was preferable to death”

Friends from childhood, British RAF pilots James Teasdale and Bryan Young are shot down while attempting to conduct a special photo-reconnaissance mission in Germany.  They parachute out of their plane and run, eventually hopping aboard a German ambulance train. They toss two German patients out of the train car and assume their identities. Eventually, the train deposits the men far behind enemy lines at a German military hospital for the mentally ill. The nurses dub it “The Alphabet House” due to the way the patients, and their diagnosis, are referred to as letters of the alphabet.

James and Bryan, both in their early twenties, were tested to the limits of psychological endurance. So much so that it strained credulity on more than one occasion. They are treated with frequent electroshock ‘therapy’ and daily doses of dangerous anti-psychotic drugs that makes them almost catatonic.

“The days ahead might take years to live through”.

The reader glimpses the horrifying and extremely disturbing way the mentally ill were treated, and how the German Nazis treated their sick soldiers. Remember the phrase ‘survival of the fittest?’.

James and Bryan discover that they are not the only ones on the ward feigning mental illness. At least three of the Germans are part of “Operation Insanity”, a devious plot perpetrated by avarice. When one ‘malingerer’ is discovered, he is taken to the yard and shot.

This was a suspenseful war thriller, but personally I think it would have made a better movie than a book. Although the author’s pacing is spot-on, and he did engender tension in the reader, this wasn’t enough for me – especially in the first half of the book which was set for the most part in one hospital ward with the protagonists lying in bed feigning madness.  I didn’t really connect with the protagonists – partly I think because we didn’t really get to know them well before their ‘Alphabet House’ ordeal began. Partly too because their experiences were so outside of anything I can imagine. Maybe it would appeal more to male readers? I don’t know… Anyway, I found the book was over-long, and dragged in spots, especially in the first half of the book. I found myself skimming, which I hate to do, and hate to admit to doing.

The second part of the book which features Bryan Young, now a physician, I expected to like more. However, that really didn’t happen for me.  It was overly violent, and portrayed evil men doing evil things. Over, and over, and over again.

I wanted to like this book, really I did. It had a great and interesting beginning, a somewhat tedious middle, and an almost unrealistic ending.

Although I really love the Dept. Q series, sadly I found that this book just wasn’t for me.

Watch the book trailer for “Alphabet House”.

I received a digital copy of this novel free, at my request, from Dutton/Penguin Group via NetGalley, and I provided this voluntary review.



Jussi Adler-Olsen (born 2 August 1950) is a Danish writer of crime fiction, as well as a publisher, editor and entrepreneur.

Jussi Adler-Olsen made his debut as a fiction writer in 1997 when “The Alphabet House” was first published. Since then he has gone on to write the highly acclaimed mystery series featuring the police detectives of “Dept. Q”

About Fictionophile

Fiction reviewer ; Goodreads librarian. Retired library cataloger - more time to read! Loves books, gardening, and red wine. I have been a reviewer member of NetGalley since October 2013. I review titles offered by Edelweiss, and participate in blog tours with TLC Book Tours.
This entry was posted in Book Reviews, debut novels, Historical fiction, NetGalley, Scandinavian, war stories and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink.

14 Responses to “The Alphabet House” by Jussi Adler-Olsen – Book Review

  1. Bernadette says:

    I found the book very good and have recommended it to others I am a senior citizen and a woman if that has anything to do with it.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Susie | Novel Visits says:

    Sounds like an interesting premise that didn’t quite click. Maybe there was a reason you waited so long to read it! I think I’ll wait for the movie on this one.


  3. This sounds like a tough read I’d definitely have to be in the ‘mood’ to read it.


  4. Annie says:

    Haven’t read any book by this author but I’ve seen the Dept Q movies and I loved them. Sad that you didn’t enjoy this one but you can’t love them all! Hopefully next will be good 😀


  5. skyecaitlin says:

    This is a wonderful review, Lynne, but I think the subject would be extremely painful.


  6. madbooklove says:

    A wonderfully honest review. And as for your reasons for delay, I can definitely relate. Ever since around this time last year, I’ve struggled to pick up books that will leave me raw. So much has been going on in the world that I feel more “tender” than usual, and I just don’t have a lot of space for anything that reminds me how much the past seems to be repeating itself. And 500 pages…I love a long book when it feels like I have time for one, but with my galley pile so out of control…the long ones will have to wait.

    Liked by 1 person

  7. Christine says:

    Wow, Lynne, if this is a “less intense” read for you, I’d hate to try to get through your usual fare!!!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. Oh dear, I completely understand why this one had languished for so long, not the cheeriest of tales by the sound of things and it seems as though you were right to put it to the back of the queue although it’s so hard when you want to enjoy a book, but can’t. I have to admit my tolerance for tedious middles declines more with each passing year!

    Liked by 1 person

    • Thanks for your empathetic comment Cleo. I always feel that perhaps I’m doing a book an injustice when I’m just not in the right mood to read it. However, this time I’m certain that this book would have been ‘work’ to read regardless.

      Liked by 1 person

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