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The alphabet house : a novel / Jussi Adler-Olsen ; translated by Steve Schein.

Adler-Olsen, Jussi, (author.). Schein, Steve, (translator.).
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Record details

  • ISBN: 9780525954897
  • ISBN: 0525954899
  • Physical Description: vi, 465 pages (hardcover) ; 24 cm
  • Publisher: New York, New York : Dutton / Penguin Group (USA) Inc., c[2015]

Content descriptions

Summary, etc.:
British pilots James Teasdale and Bryan Young have been chosen to conduct a special photo-reconnaissance mission near Dresden, Germany. Intelligence believes the Nazis are building new factories that could turn the tide of the war. When their plane is shot down, James and Bryan know they will be executed 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 they can escape later. But their act is too convincing and 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. The pilots’ only hope of survival is to fake insanity until the war ends, but their friendship and courage are put to the ultimate test when James and Bryan realize they aren’t the only ones in the Alphabet House feigning madness.
Subject: World War, 1939-1945 > Fiction.
Air pilots, Military > Fiction.
Mental illness > Fiction.
Psychiatric hospitals > Fiction
Male friendship > Fiction.
Impostors and imposture > Fiction.
Dresden (Germany) > Fiction.
FICTION / Thrillers / Historical.
FICTION / War & Military.
Genre: War stories.
Historical fiction.
Suspense fiction.

***This excerpt is from an advance uncorrected proof***

Copyright © 2015 Jussi Adler-Olsen


This book is not a war novel.

The Alphabet House is an elementary story about breaches that can
arise in all types of personal relationships, from daily life in a marriage or at the workplace to extreme settings like the Korean War, the Boer War, the Iran-Iraq War, or in this case the Second World War.

There are several reasons why I chose this war to provide the novel’s framework. Primarily because I am the son of a psychiatrist and grew up in the surroundings of “insane asylums,” as they were called in Denmark in the late ?fties and early sixties; and although my father was extremely progressive and a new thinker in his ?eld, I couldn’t avoid witnessing ?rst-hand how the mentally ill were treated in those days. Many of them had been in the system since the thirties and I was interested in the methods of treatment and the doctors and hospitals during that period, and especially during the war. I got to know a few patients who—through the eyes of a naïve, alert child—I suspected of simulating their mental illness.

One of these chronically mentally ill patients basically coped with life in the hospitals by uttering only two sentences. “Yes, you’ve got a point there!” was the one he used the most. He wasn’t sticking his neck out here. Then he could enhance and round off practically any situation with a sincerely relieved “Oh, thank God!” He was one of the patients I suspected of having retreated from society into the calm and peaceful world of medical treatment facilities by using some obscure form of simulation.

But is it possible to preserve oneself and one’s mind in a situation like this if one isn’t really ill? It’s hard to believe, especially considering some of the hefty methods of treatment used at the time. Wouldn’t our verbally limited patient become ill sooner or later?

My father met the patient again after a period of many years. It was in the seventies, by which point the world had become freer in many ways. This had also had its effect on our man. He’d added a third sentence to his repertoire: “Up yours!” He’d kept up with the times.

And again I found myself wondering: Is he ill or is he well?

My desire to combine these two objects of my fascination—the possibly mentally ill individual and World War II—was enhanced by a conversation I had with one of my mother’s friends named Karna Bruun. She had worked as a nurse in Bad Kreuznach under Professor Ferdinand Sauerbruch and was able to con?rm and expand upon some theories I’d developed.

In the summer of 1987, under the starry Italian skies of Terracina, I outlined my ?edgling story for my wife. Then, as now, I had the greatest admiration for authors for whom research and literary expertise were inseparable. She believed my story would be worth this kind of effort.

It took me almost eight years to realize.

In the course of this period I’ve been grateful to Det Treschowske Fideikommis for their assistance in the form of a travel grant to Freiburg im Breisgau, where a large portion of the story unfolds; to the military library in Freiburg; and to Oberarchivrat Dr. Ecker from Stadtarchiv Freiburg.

Since then, my wife, Hanne Adler-Olsen, has been my tireless muse and critic, constantly nurturing my faithfulness to my original ambitions.

In the perusal of my manuscript by my capable and wise friends— Henning Kure, Jesper Helbo, Tomas Stender, Eddie Kiran, Carl Rosschou, and not least of all my sister, Elsebeth Wæhrens, and my mother, Karen-Margrethe Olsen—the story underwent a multilayered process that made it both shorter and more profound. All elements were assessed and pondered over until the story came to fruition as I’d hoped.

Jussi Adler-Olsen



It wasn’t the best weather in the world.

Cold and windy, with poor visibility.

An exceptionally bleak January day, even for England.

The American crews had already been sitting on the landing strips for some time when the tall Englishman approached. He was still not quite awake.

Behind the group a shape rose halfway to its feet and waved to him. The
Englishman waved back, yawning loudly. Functioning in daytime was dif?cult after such a long period with nothing but night raids.

It was going to be a long day.

At the far end of the air?eld the planes were taxiing slowly toward the southern end of the landing strips. Soon the air would be full of them

The feeling was both exhilarating and oppressive.

The orders regarding the mission came from Major General Lewis H. Brereton’s office in Sunninghill Park. He was requesting British assistance from Sir Arthur Harris, marshal in the Royal Air Force. The Americans were still impressed by the British Mosquitoes’ discovery, during their November nighttime bombing of Berlin, of the Germans’ most closely guarded secret, the V-1 missile sites at Zemplín.

The choice of British personnel had been left to Group Captain Hadley-Jones, who entrusted the practical work to his next-in-command, Wing Commander John Wood.

The latter’s task was to select twelve British ?ight crews. Eight of them were to function as instructors and four as supporting crews with special photo-reconnaissance duties under the 8th and 9th American Air Forces.

Two-seater P-51D Mustang ?ghters had been equipped for this task with radar and sensitive optical instruments.

Only two weeks had passed since James Teasdale and Bryan Young had been chosen as the ?rst crew to try out this equipment under so-called “normal conditions.”

In short, they could expect to go into action again.

The raid was planned for the eleventh of January, 1944. The targets were the airplane factories at Oschersleben, Braunschweig, Magdeburg, and Halberstadt.

Both men had protested about having their Christmas leave curtailed. They were still suffering from combat fatigue.

“Two weeks to ?gure out this bloody machine!” Bryan shook his head. “I don’t know a thing about all those gadgets. Why doesn’t Uncle Sam do his own dirty work?”

John Wood was standing with his back to them both, bowed over the document ?les. “Because Uncle Sam wants you!”

“That’s no argument, is it?”

“You’ll live up to the Americans’ expectations and come out alive.”

“Is that a guarantee?”


“Say something, James!” Bryan turned toward his friend.

James ?ngered his silk scarf and shrugged. Bryan sat down heavily.

It was hopeless. They had to go.

The entire operation was calculated to take a good six hours. A total of about 650 four-engine bombers from the 8th American Air Force were to bomb airplane factories, escorted by the P-51 long-distance ?ghters.

Bryan and James were to break away from the other P-51s during the attack.

During the past couple of months, there had been persistent rumors of an increased in?ux of building craftsmen, engineers, and highly specialized technicians—as well as hordes of Polish and Soviet slave laborers—into the region of Lauenstein, south of Dresden.

Intelligence had learned that some kind of construction was going on in the area, but not what kind. They had a hunch it might be factories for producing synthetic fuel. If this were the case, it would be a dangerous development that could lend impetus to new German V-bomb projects.

Bryan and James’s job, therefore, was to thoroughly photograph and map out the area, including the railway network around Dresden, so Intelligence could update its information. After completing their mission they were to rejoin the formation on its way back to England.

Many of the Americans who were to take part in the raid were already seasoned air warriors. Despite the cold and the impending takeoff, they were lying half stretched out on the uneven, frostbitten earth some people called a landing strip. Most of them were chatting away as though they were on their way to a dance or relaxing at home on the family sofa. Here and there a few sat hugging their knees, staring dully into space. These were the new and inexperienced airmen who had not yet learned how to forget their dreams and control their anxiety.

The Englishman strode between the sitting ?gures toward his partner, who lay stretched out on the ground with his arms behind his head.

Bryan gave a start when he felt the gentle kick in his side.

Snow?akes drifted above them, settling on nose and brow as the sky became more and more overcast. This expedition would differ very little from one of their night raids.

Bryan’s seat vibrated gently under him.

The radar screen showed the surrounding air space to be thick with signals from the planes in the formation. Each echo that signaled a plane’s position was clearly distinguishable.

Several times during training they’d joked about painting the windows over and ?ying on instruments alone. The equipment was that precise. It was a joke they could just as well have taken seriously on this ?ight. According to James, the visibility was “as clear as a symphony by Béla Bartók.” The windshield wipers and nose of the plane penetrating the snow clouds—that was all they could see.

They’d been arguing. Not about the crazy idea of changing duties and equipment at such short notice, but about John Wood’s motives. According to Wood they had been chosen because they were the best, which James was willing to accept.

But Bryan blamed his friend. There was scarcely any doubt in his mind that John Wood had picked them because James never protested while on active duty. And on this operation there had certainly been no time for questioning orders.

Bryan’s reproaches irritated James. There were worries enough already. It was a long trip and they were handling new equipment. The weather was terrible and there was no one to support them once they left the rest of the formation. If Intelligence was correct in assuming that important factories were under construction, the target area would be very heavily guarded. Finally, it was going to be an extremely difficult task getting the photos back to England.

But James was right. Someone had to do it. Besides, it couldn’t be much different from the bombing raids on Berlin.

They’d made it this far.

Bryan sat silently in his seat behind James, doing his job irreproachably, as always. The vibrations gradually shook loose his combed-back hair. Bryan’s hairstyle was his most distinguishing feature. Freshly combed, he looked almost as tall as James.

Between Bryan’s map and measuring instruments hung the photo of a
WAC by the name of Madge Donat. In her eyes, Bryan was an Adonis.

He’d stuck with her for a long time.

As if responding to the authoritative cue of a conductor’s baton, the Germans began greeting the arriving planes with an antiaircraft overture. James had foreseen the barrage a few seconds previously and given Bryan the signal, so they managed to change course. From that moment until some unpredictable time in the future their fate was out of their hands.

Unprotected and on their own.

“We’ll be scraping the ass off this machine if you want us to ?y any lower,” Bryan grunted twenty minutes later.

“If we stay up at two hundred feet, your pictures won’t come out,” came the reply.

James was right. It was snowing over the target area, but the wind was constantly forcing the ?akes to whirl upward, creating holes through which it was possible to photograph. Assuming they were close enough.

No one had been interested in their presence since they’d turned away from the barrage over Magdeburg. Apparently they hadn’t been observed. Bryan would do his utmost to see they weren’t.

Many planes had crashed behind them. Far too many. In the midst of all the noise, James shouted back to Bryan that he’d seen German ?ghters
?ring rocketlike things. A short ?ash followed by a totally devastating explosion.

“The Luftwaffe isn’t worth a shit,” an American pilot had bellowed out the previous evening, a broad Kentucky grin on his face. Perhaps experience had taught him something different now.

“And then 138 degrees to the south!” Bryan was following the sea of snow beneath him. “You should be able to get a glimpse of the main road out of Heidenau. Can you see the crossroads now? Good. Then follow the turning toward the ridge.”

Their speed was down to scarcely two hundred kilometers per hour, which in that weather made the entire fuselage complain audibly.

“You’ve got to zigzag over the road here, James, but watch out! Some of the southern slopes could be steep. Can you see anything? You should have a good chance between here and Geising.”

“All I can see is that the road seems quite wide. Why would that be, in such a deserted place?”

“That’s what I was wondering. Can’t you swing southward now? Look at those trees! Can you see how dense they are?”

“Camou?age netting, you mean?”

“Possibly.” If there were any factories here, they must have been dug into the hillside. Bryan doubted that. Once such a building was discovered, the earthworks wouldn’t provide sufficient protection against intense precision bombing. “This is a wild-goose chase, James! There’s nothing in the vicinity to suggest recent building.”

If possible, they were to follow the railway line northward toward Heidenau, turn west toward Freital and follow the railway line to Chemnitz, then turn north and later northeast along the railway line to Waldheim. The entire network was to be photographed in detail. By Russian request. Soviet troops were exerting heavy pressure near Leningrad and were threatening to roll up the entire German front. According to the Russians, the railway junction at Dresden was the Germans’ umbilical cord. Once severed, the German divisions on the Eastern Front would soon be lacking supplies. It was merely a question of how many cuts were necessary in order to be effective.

Bryan looked down at the railway line beneath him. There would be nothing to see in his photos but snow-covered rails.

The ?rst explosion came without warning and with incredible force, only a half meter behind Bryan’s seat. Before he could turn around, James was already forcing the plane into a fast vertical climb. Bryan fastened the snap hook in his seat and felt the cockpit’s tepid air being sucked out from under him.

The jagged hole in the fuselage was about the size of a ?st; the exit hole in the roof, like a dinner plate. A single round from a small-caliber antiaircraft gun had hit them.

So there was something they’d overlooked after all.
The engine screeched so loudly during the steep ascent that they couldn’t tell if they were still being shot at.

“Is it serious back there?” James screamed. He appeared satis?ed with the answer. “Then here we go!” Almost instantly James had looped the loop, tipped the plane on one side, and put it into a vertical dive. After a few seconds the Mustang’s machine guns began ticking away. Several antiaircraft muzzle ?ames pointed directly up at them, showing them the way.

In the midst of that deadly blaze there had to be something the Germans were extremely reluctant to have outsiders know about.

James swung the plane from side to side in order to confuse the enemy while the German gunners on the ground tried to get them in their sights. They never saw the guns, but there was no mistaking the sound. The Flakzwilling 40 made a bloodcurdling noise all of its own.

When they were close to the ground, James leveled the plane with a jerk. They would only have this one chance. The entire area was two to three kilometers wide. The camera needed a steady hand.

The landscape whipped along beneath them. Gray patches and white swirls alternated with treetops and buildings. Tall fences encircled the area they were ?ying over. Several watchtowers ?red machine-gun salvos at them. Slave laborers were kept in camps like these. Tracer-bullet ?re from a forest thicket in front of them made James instinctively dive still lower, straight toward the trees. Several rounds from his machine gun made it past the tree trunks, silencing all resistance from that quarter.

Then, grazing the tops of the ?r trees, James ?ew the plane right over a gigantic grayish mass of camou?age netting, walls, railway cars, and scattered heaps of materials. Bryan had plenty to photograph. A few seconds later they again banked upward, and away.


Bryan nodded, patted James’s shoulder, and prayed that the guns below them were their only opponents.

They weren’t.

“Something funny’s going on here, Bryan! You can just see it if you sit up straight. It’s the engine cowling! Can you see it?”

It wasn’t difficult. A triangular bit of cowling was sticking straight up into the air. Whether it was caused by the dive, a hit, or blast waves was immaterial. It wasn’t good under any circumstances.

“We’re going to have to really slow down, Bryan. You know that, don’t you? There’s not much hope of getting back to the bomber formation now.”

“Do what you think is best!”

“We’ll follow the railway line. If they send ?ghters after us, they’re probably thinking we’ll make off due west. You keep an eye on the air around us, okay?”

The trip back was going to be endless.

The countryside beneath them gradually became ?atter. On a clear day they would have been able to see the horizon to all sides. Had it not been for the snowstorm, they would have been audible kilometers away.

“How the hell do you imagine we’ll get home, James?” asked Bryan quietly. Looking at the map was useless. Their chances were slim.

“Just keep your eye on that little screen,” came the reply. “You can’t do much else. I think the cowling will stay put so long as we stick to this marching pace.”

“Then we’ll take the shortest way back.”

“North of Chemnitz. Yes, please, Bryan!”

“We’re crazy!”

“Not us! The situation!”

. . .

The railway line below them was no minor branch line. Sooner or later an ammunition train or troop transport would turn up. Small, easily aimed twin cannons or Flak 38 twenty-millimeter antiaircraft guns would be able to ?nish them off quickly. And then there were the Messerschmitts. For them, the Mustang was easy prey. Close combat. Shot down. That’s how brief the report would be.

Bryan thought of suggesting they land the plane before the enemy did it for them. His philosophy was simple and practical. Captivity was preferable to death.

He took hold of James’s upper arm and shook it slightly. “They’ve spot- ted us,” he said quietly.

Without further comment James let the plane lose altitude.

“Naundorf ahead. Here you go north of . . .” Bryan saw the enemy only as a shadow above them. “There he is, James, straight above us!” James tore the plane away from low altitude with a violent wrench of the controls.

The whole plane was vibrating with protest as he accelerated. During the sudden ascent the hole behind Bryan practically sucked the cabin empty of air. James’s machine guns started rattling even before Bryan had seen their target. A merciless salvo into its belly paralyzed the Messerschmitt instantly. The explosion that followed proved fatal. The pilot never knew what hit him.

There were several bangs that Bryan couldn’t quite place, and suddenly they were lying level in the air. Bryan glanced at James’s neck as if he expected to see it react in some special way. The draft blasting through the shattered front windscreen meant the triangular bit of cowling had been torn off during their brutal ascent.

James shook his head without making a sound.

Then he slumped forward with his face turned to one side.

The roar of the engine increased. All the airplane’s joints rattled in time with the fuselage’s descent through the air strata. Loosening his harness, Bryan threw himself over James, got hold of the control stick, and forced it toward the lifeless body.

A delta of small blood streams trickled down James’s cheek, emanating from two long super?cial gashes above and in front of his ear. The piece of metal had hit him in the temple, taking most of his earlobe with it.

Without warning, another piece of cowling came loose with a bang and tumbled over the left wing. Creaking sounds told Bryan there was more to come. Then he made a decision for them both and pulled James free.

The cockpit canopy almost exploded off, sucking Bryan out of his seat. In spite of the howling, icy wind, he grabbed James under the armpits and pulled him out onto the wing in the lacerating air. At the same moment the plane disappeared from under them. Jerked out into space, Bryan lost his grip on James, who plunged downward like dead weight, but he still felt the life-redeeming tug of James’s rip cord. For a second James lay poised in midair with arms hanging limp as a rag doll’s. Then his chute opened with a sudden jerk. His ?apping arms made him look like a ?edgling just out of the nest, tumbling through the air for the ?rst time.

Bryan’s ?ngers were like ice as he tugged at his own parachute rip cord. He heard the crack of the chute opening above him as shots began rattling toward him from the ground, sending faint, treacherous ?ashes of light up through the snowy haze.

The plane banked and plunged slowly earthward behind them. Anyone searching for them would have to do a thorough job. Until then, Bryan had to make sure that James, the small ?uttering gray ball, did not disappear from sight.

The ground rose to meet Bryan with unexpected brutality. Hard plow furrows were like concrete gutters in the severe frost. As he lay moaning, the wind ?lled his chute again and dragged him over the earthen ridges, ripping his ?ying suit to pieces. The powdery snow froze any bloody scrapes to ice before he could register the pain.

Bryan had seen James hit the ground. It seemed violent, as if his body had been crushed from the waist down.

Contrary to all regulations Bryan let his chute blow away from him as he hobbled over the furrows. Isolated fence posts marked an old corral. The horses were gone, slaughtered long ago. James’s parachute had wedged itself between the bark and wood of one of the posts. Bryan glanced around. There wasn’t a sound. Amid cascades of whirling newly fallen snow he took hold of the dancing parachute with both hands and with even tugs guided himself along the seams and straps toward James.

It took three shoves before James slid onto his side. The zipper of his
?ight jacket gave way reluctantly. Bryan’s icy ?ngertips dug down under the rough clothing. The warmth he found there was almost painful to the touch.

Bryan held his breath until he felt a faint pulse.

The wind ?nally subsided and the snow stopped drifting. All was quiet for the moment.

James began panting feebly as Bryan dragged him toward a thicket. Sky could be seen through the treetops. Alongside the trunks lay debris from generations of storms, offering shelter and cover. “With so much unutilized fuel around, there’s not much chance of any people living here,” Bryan said to himself.

“What’d you say?” came a voice from the limp body as it was being dragged through the carpet of snow.

Bryan dropped to his knees and carefully pulled James’s head toward his lap.

“James! What happened?”

“Did something happen?” His eyes were still not focusing. He stared up at Bryan, his gaze wandering the air above him. Then he turned his head and surveyed the black-and-white landscape. “Where are we?”

“We crashed, James. Are you hurt bad?”

“I don’t know.”

“Can you feel your legs?”

“They’re cold as hell!”

“But can you feel them, James?”

“You bloody well bet I can. They’re cold as hell, I told you! What’s this godforsaken place you’ve dropped me into?”

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