A few years ago, I reviewed “The One Man” by Andrew Gross. It remains one of the best historical thrillers I’ve ever read. Outstanding suspense, fascinating historical details and based on a true story, this title continues to be one that I often recommend to others.
Gross later released “The Button Man,” which was also critically acclaimed, and set in the early 1900s in New York. This time, Gross stays in New York, but goes back to his World War II theme and tells the tale of what was happening on the home front before the U.S. entered the war in “The Fifth Column.”
It is early in 1939, and tensions are running high. Europe is in chaos, and New York City is divided amongst various groups for or against getting involved in the war. There are violent rallies in parks, and citizens are wildly flying flags of Germany, America, England, France and Nazism.
Our own president, FDR, wants to help England, but Congress refuses to get involved in another world war. To make things more complicated, American hero Charles Lindbergh sympathizes with the Germans. Many citizens are confused, and some are angered by the lack of action from the United States.
After a large demonstration by the German American Bund at Madison Square Garden, Charles Mossman is minding his own business in a bar, when drunken protesters draped in Nazi flags come in and start stirring up trouble. Drowning his sorrows about a brother killed in battle in Spain, and falling into a deep depression, Charlie is watching his life fall apart. Already two sheets to the wind, Charlie gets involved in the pandemonium and a misdirected punch ends up with tragic consequences.
After charged with manslaughter and spending two years in jail, Charlie is much improved and is ready to go back to his wife and young daughter as a changed man. Unfortunately, his wife, Liz, doesn’t want him back. She and their daughter Emma live in a brownstone in the predominantly German neighborhood of Yorkville on the Upper East Side. They are settled now and rely on the close friendship with their elderly Swiss neighbors, the Bauers.
It is 1941 now, and the threat of war is palpable. There are fears of a “fifth column,” a group that the Encyclopedia Britannica calls “the infiltration of sympathizers into the entire fabric of the nation under attack and, particularly, into positions of policy decision and national defense. From such key posts, fifth-column activists exploit the fears of a people by spreading rumors and misinformation, as well as by employing the more standard techniques of espionage and sabotage.” The FBI is on to this and is asking New Yorkers to report any suspicious people in the community.
It is this idea that Charles Mossman has in mind when he gets to know the Bauers. They say they’re Swiss, yet speak German. They constantly teach his daughter Emma about German geography and history, but profess to be anti-Hitler. They have a number of odd visitors at all hours. Charlie speaks his concerns to Liz about it, but she accuses him of being paranoid and hateful. Unable to quell his feeling of unease, he begins his own investigation after a visit to the police station is unhelpful. This results in horrifying consequences.
Andrew Gross is certainly a master of powerful historical thrillers. Charlie Mossman is at once a relatable yet tragic character who is faced with a great deal of strife and is weighed down by events in his life.
A history professor at Columbia, he made some bad decisions that led to his dismissal. The combination of his brother’s death in Spain and the career-ending situation at Columbia resulted in his drinking and long absences from home. This set the stage for the events of the novel, which rely heavily on all of these pieces falling together. He became the perfect patsy.
The uniqueness of writing a World War II novel that takes place in New York City, rather than Europe, doesn’t lessen the suspense or urgency of the plot. If anything, it increases the action, since it is a location that most readers can somehow relate to.
I, for one, had not realized the intensity of the pro-Hitler undercurrents in American society and how that affected the fabric of life in our country. We were, and still are, primarily a nation of immigrants. It was a dark and painful time, but it was also something to be cognizant of as we move forward as a nation.
The theme was handled by the author with immense delicacy, intertwining fact and creative license. In the end, it’s a story that leaves the reader thinking of consequences and redemption, and makes one question where loyalties and trust lie. Another fantastic winner from Andrew Gross.