“The Fifth Column”

“The Fifth Column” by Andrew Gross is a story of domestic terrorism, sleeper cells, and political complications as current as the evening news tonight, but this drama is set in WWII. The “Home Front” during WWII, is not peaceful and quiet with patriotic souls doing their best to support the war effort. The situation in Europe is deteriorating; Hitler threatens to take over everything, and a wave of “America First” proponents advocate ignoring the looming danger.

The story opens in February 1939 with a first person narrative by Charles Mossman, whose once-promising career and marriage are now in a downward spiral. He is filled with guilt over the death of twin brother, killed fighting fascists in Spain. Today is their birthday, and not a good day to get into a racially charged bar fight. With one punch, life as he knows it comes crashing to an end.  

Two years later, 1941, upon being released from jail, Mossman finds the political climate has changed, and circumstances for him, an ex con, are grim. Readers get to know Mossman well as he continues as if giving a report on his life; he shares his feelings about himself, his family, and his life choices. The discourse is factual and emotional at the same time with a hint of self-depreciation as he describes the world and the trickle-down effect of international politics on New York. He recounts specific details of events, “Then there was the time the following week when I was sitting in the Old Heidelberg again on Third Avenue having a coffee.” He talks directly to readers; “I have to admit I felt a little foolish, following them.” Readers hear what he says to others; “’All these customers,’ I said to Emma when we got outside. ‘ Do you know what Uncle Willi and Aunt Trudi do for work?’” Readers listen in as others talk to him; “’You’re suggesting they’re spies . . . ?’ she said, her eyes locked on me. Then she laughed. “’Well, that’s absurd.’” He teases readers with anticipation; “But little did I know.”

The story starts slowly and builds in intensity and complexity. Readers wonder how Mossman will fare in the approaching storm and willingly follow him on the perilous journey into it. Mossman’s narrative is occasionally interrupted by other conversations, and readers learn what the narrator does not know … yet. Has Mossman wandered into a nest of German spies or are people overreacting and just seeing spies everywhere?

“The Fifth Column” reveals the cost of war on the home front, a subject that is sometimes overlooked in novels set in WW II. Gross creates believable characters, flawed characters, who struggle to balance duty to family, duty to government, and duty to society while fearing that more lives will be lost because the real war is yet to come. I received a review copy of “The Fifth Column” from Andrew Gross, St. Martin’s Press, and Minotaur Books.