The blurb on my copy states that:
‘Five British prisoners have escaped from the Nazis – or have they? British Intelligence suspects an elaborate ruse and that one of the five may well be a double agent prepared for counter-espionage. Tommy Hambledon is assigned to uncover the most dangerous German spy in England.’
Based on this blurb I expected a novel which was almost a precursor to John Le Carre’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy (1974) where five men are suspected of being a mole within the Circus and like Smiley, I thought Hambledon would be responsible for deciding which was the double agent. However, this expectation quickly evaporated within a couple of chapters as the novel actually focuses on only one of the five suspects, Major Brampton, who is a man of many aliases and is not what he seems. Tommy Hambledon’s role in the novel is marginal as the tale centres on Brampton recounting his journey across Europe to England, followed by his subsequent work for British Intelligence. The idea of Hambledon having to ‘uncover the most dangerous German spy in England,’ seems somewhat forgotten in the book and is only vaguely recollected in the closing chapter. Although well-written and often funny, I think The Fifth Man (1946) was not up to the usual standards of the previous five novels in the series. Coles recreates a realistic wartime atmosphere with rationing, restricted travel and black outs, but I think the plot is lacking its usual level of suspense and quantity of surprises and twists.