This book, although just translated into English, was first published in Denmark in 1997, and predated Adler-Olsen’s Department Q detective series.
It tells the story of two British pilots, Bryan Young and James Teasdale, friends from childhood, who were sent on a dangerous aerial reconnaissance mission over Germany during World War II. Their plane is shot down, and the two manage to bail out, but now they are in German territory, somewhat injured, and have no way to get back to the Allies. They jump onto a railroad car carrying injured German SS troopers, and assume the identity of two of the men. Because this is a car for those who are damaged psychologically, the Brits can get away with not speaking. James does understand German, but Bryan does not. Thus Brian’s efforts at appearing confused are convincing, but to Brian’s surprise, James is an even better actor.
The two are transferred along with the others to a sanitarium known as Alphabet House because of the alphanumeric categorization of patients with mental illnesses. (Such special treatment for SS officers who had mental problems was of course not available to most sufferers, who were gassed to death.)
At Alphabet House, James and Bryan are subjected to radical treatments for their putative psychoses, including frequent electroshock and daily administration of dangerous anti-psychotic drugs that induced catatonic-like states. Bryan tried not to take his pills, but this too was dangerous; if the officials at the facility suspected anyone of malingering, that person would be executed. As it turns out, however, Bryan and James were not the only ones pretending to have psychiatric disorders. But the others who are faking are determined to take no chances with anyone knowing about them; they have a secret to protect that will make them rich if only they can survive until the war is over. Thus, the two Brits are constantly observed, judged, suspected, and mistreated by the German prisoners to cause them to slip in their roles, if indeed they are playing roles. And as the German malingerers – high-level sadistic Nazis – increasingly suspect the two, the tension ratchets up enormously.
Evaluation: Although a few aspects of the story strained credulity, this psychological (in a double sense) thriller kept me on the edge of my seat once I got into it a bit. (Jim was pulled in right from the start.) Even though Adler-Olsen wrote this debut novel many years ago, you can see a talented writer at work, who is adept at pacing and characterization. I did not find the characters at either end of the morality spectrum unduly caricatured. This is a solidly good book, and it is a standalone. We both enjoyed reading it, as we have enjoyed the other books by this author.
Published in the U.S. by Dutton, a member of the Penguin Group (USA), 2015