Let’s start by directly contradicting the marketing blurb. This is not a ‘gripping psychological war thriller’, nor is it ‘a great introduction’ to Jussi Adler-Olsen, better known for his Department Q Scandi crime / Nordic noir series. Alphabet House is a much earlier work, originally published in 1997 and it was Olsen’s first foray into fiction. It took five years for his next book to be published, and a whole decade before he finally hit his writing stride with The Keeper Of Lost Causes. Alphabet House certainly shows every sign of being a first novel. Not without many merits, and it tries really hard. It tries too hard.
The concept is a stunning one: what if two RAF airmen, shot down near the end of WW2, had to pretend to be shell-shocked and traumatised SS officers in order to save their lives? What if they were committed to an officer-class lunatic asylum, alongside various unscrupulous gestapo malingerers? What if the atmosphere of fear combined with the chemical and electroshock treatments to loosen their thin grip on reality? What if escape wasn’t possible? What happens if you stop pretending to be mad… and go insane?
See. Told you it sounds good.
The problem is that the Olsen didn’t have the skills to pull off such a complex psychological thriller back then. What should be a first half full of brooding menace and tension consists instead of difficult to digest, self-indulgent passages of over-described, ponderous prose. It may be exactingly accurate in historical terms, but it lacks essential impetus. The narrative lumbers along without giving the characters any real individuality. I could only distinguish the two airmen as ‘the one who speaks German’ and ‘the one who doesn’t speak German’. Similarly, there was little to distinguish the bullying bad guys who morphed into a single, stereotypical nasty Nazi.
In the second half the action switches track to the 1970s and Olsen attempts a cat-and-mouse investigation between an English businessman and a clandestine coterie of murderous conspirators – with a wild-card lunatic thrown into the mix. Again, it’s something of a slog as the hero plods along, gradually revealing the truth of what happened a quarter century before. There are chase scenes and violent encounters but these are dully muffled by the unwieldy writing. The final showdown just goes on… and on… and on… until you don’t care who wins, just so long as it ends.
However, Alphabet House isn’t actually a bad book. It tells a stimulating story with a fine eye for historical accuracy, and the latter part raises many intriguing issues about the nature of friendship, hardship and betrayal. It’s one thing to be treated badly by your enemies – you’d almost expect that. But how do you rationalise being abandoned by your best friend?
In many ways, it’s a shame that Jussi Adler-Olsen didn’t choose to re-write this book now instead of allowing his publisher to translate a clumsy, early work in this way. If Olsen brought his refined literary skills to bear on the same subject, the result could easily be a book of the year.
Instead, this is worthy, but hard work.
Reviewed by Rowena Hoseason
Alphabet House by Jussi Adler-Olsen is available as a paperback or ebook