Was there a Nazi fifth column in Hastings during the war which met in ‘a pub at the far corner of Warrior Square’?  There certainly is in Anthony Quinn’s latest novel Our Friends in Berlin in which British Nazi sympathisers gather information which might prove useful in Berlin, not least concerning preparations for D-Day.  Set in 1935, 1941, 1944 and 1948, the plot revolves around a surprising love triangle (or is it a love quartet?) and MI5’s attempt to defeat the fifth column before it is in a position to affect the course of the war.

There is no need for me to issue a spoiler alert because, like a good secret agent, I must be circumspect lest I give the game away and spoil the plot’s twists and turns.  It will suffice to say that if you enjoy what used to be called a ‘good yarn’ with period detail and interesting characters, then I recommend this novel.  It reminded me of what Graham Greene used to call his ‘entertainments’: relatively short pacey thrillers which you don’t want to put down.   Indeed, the two main characters wouldn’t be entirely out of place in the world of Graham Greene.  That is high praise indeed.

So was there a Nazi fifth column in Hastings?  Well, yes, it seems that there was.  Quinn acknowledges that his novel was inspired by an article in The Times in 2014 when documents about a fifth column in Britain were released by the National Archives in Kew.  My perusal of an article in The Independent (27th February 2014) demonstrated that Quinn’s fiction is very much based on fact and that the mother-in-law of the leading Nazi spy (who has the same first name in the novel) gathered the details of the air defences in Hastings for onward transmission to Berlin. 

At the very least, in the case of this addictive novel, the truth is at least as strange as the fiction.

• Our Friends in Berlin By Anthony Quinn (Jonathan Cape), £14.99

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