As the story opens it's 1944 and World War II is raging. English flyboys Bryan Young and James Teasdale are sent on a mission to do aerial reconnaissance over Germany, where they get shot down. After some hide-and-seek with German soldiers Bryan and James make their way onto a German medical transport train, throw off the bodies of a couple of Nazi officers, and assume their identities. They soon find themselves in a mental hospital, called Alphabet House, for shell-shocked SS officials; there Bryan and James must endure endless electroshock and drug therapy. Though their 'mental illness' allows them to remain silent Bryan and James are still in a very precarious situation; if they're exposed as either Brits or malingerers they'll be killed immediately. Thus they live in a constant state of anxiety and fear.
As it turns Alphabet House seems to be chock full of Nazis faking mental illness. One group of malingerers consists of officers who are in the habit of whispering at night, bragging about murders they've committed and their secret horde of riches. These men are extremely suspicious of their fellow patients, fearing someone might discover their deception and expose them. Thus they watch everyone closely, not hesitating to harass or even murder someone they suspect is faking. Bryan and James come under intense scrutiny by these men and James especially suffers greatly at their hands. This part of the book is very long and very disturbing.
Eventually Bryan escapes from Alphabet House, which is bombed soon afterwards by the advancing Allies. Skip ahead to 1972 and Bryan is a wealthy, successful physician who owns a pharmaceutical company and is happily married. Bryan has never given up trying to find James, however, and when circumstances align he returns to Germany and travels to the town where Alphabet House was located. There he comes across some people he knew in the mental ward and things take a very dramatic turn. This section of the book is also very long and disturbing.
In the prologue of the book Jussi Adler-Olsen talks about his interest in mental illness and speculates whether faking a mental disability can lead to the real thing. He explains that his interests in both World War II and mental illness led him to write this book. It's hard for me to rate this story because - though it's well-written and compelling - the subject matter is distressing and many of the characters are sadistic and disgusting. This just wasn't the book for me. I'll probably stick to Jussi Adler Olsen's mysteries from now on.