Merrimon Book Reviews

Rudolph II

Statue of Rabbi Loew by Ladislav Šaloun at the new town hall of Prague

From Merrimon Book Reviews
The Fifth Servant
The Fifth Servant by Kenneth Wishnia
by Kenneth Wishnia
Historical Mystery Debut: most intriguing texture and voice

In 1592, Talmudic scholar Benyamin Ben-Akiva travels from Poland to Prague in the midst of the Inquisition.  When the body of a young Christian girl is found on the floor of a Jewish business, the new shammes (synagogue sexton) sets as his task the defense of the accused lest the whole Jewish community suffer.  In this age where Jews are accused of using the blood of Christians in the making of the Passover bread, the blood libel placed on the shopkeeper threatens the entire Jewish ghetto.  With his activities restricted by rabbinic law, Benyamin Ben-Akiva must use his wits and knowledge of Jewish law to solve the murder before Sunday.  Can he find the clues he needs before time runs out?

Kenneth Wishnia's THE FIFTH SERVANT is a clever mystery that takes the reader right into the heart of 16th century Prague's Jewish community.  Historical detail and Jewish scholarship give the novel a sense of the period.  From the clothing markers to identify Jews to their isolation within a ghetto and more, Kenneth Wishnia combines historical research with fictional imagination to bring to light this period from a point of view less frequently seen. 
THE FIFTH SERVANT sheds light on the prejudices experienced by the Jewish communities of the time and atrocities endured during this time period.  Kenneth Wishnia does an excellent job at revealing all the strange myths and the intricate connections between crown and pope and the laws which put the Jewish community in a unique position during the Inquisition.  In the solving of the case, Benyamin Ben-Akiva refers to the Torah, the Talmud, and even the Kabbalah, giving this mystery its unique voice.  A reader easily feels the respect for learning, books and scholarly tradition in this society.  Even more delightful, Kenneth Wishnia infuses the more erudite discussions with a sense of humor.   Benyamin Ben-Akiva has the ability to immerse himself within this tradition and yet also to see his own community and religion with an insider's humor.  Kenneth Wishnia uses both Hebrew and Yiddish quite frequently.  A very good glossary in the back assists readers with a less extensive background in these languages and Jewish traditions, although the publisher would have done better to include such key terms as shammes and shamus (policeman or private detective) in the glossary as well the initial pages preceding the author's note.   Kenneth Wishnia divides the novel into three parts, each representing a day in the 3-day countdown, thus emphasizing the urgency and the restrictions on Benyamin Ben-Akiva's ability to investigate.

THE FIFTH SERVANT is an excellent choice for the mystery and/or historical fiction lover who craves an entirely new voice and texture within the genre.  Intellectualism, humor and practical everyday detail combine to create a look into the period and culture without pedanticism.  Although the interpretations of texts might seem overly concerned with minute formalisms at times, these moments provide delightful character and humor to the novel.  Indeed, some of these instances provide a wonderful richness to the novel and often bridge the gap between the 16th century and the modern reader.  If you are looking for a light, easy-to-read mystery, look elsewhere.  THE FIFTH SERVANT is a rich novel to be read slowly and savored for each and every detail.  Undoubtedly, THE FIFTH SERVANT will appeal to those readers interested in Jewish history and time period with Kenneth Wishnia's inclusion of real-life historical and religious figures within the novel.  In addition, Kenneth Wishnia's discussions of textual meanings and their relevance to issues makes THE FIFTH SERVANT a delight for readers who cherishes learning and scholarship. 

While the book blurb is accurate enough, it fails to capture the rich texture of this novel.  I ordered
THE FIFTH SERVANT based on the blurb, and discovered a very different book than the one I had imagined.  While it follows neither the classic construction of mystery or historical fiction with its examination of texts, I rather relished this aspect of the novel the most.  Indeed, THE FIFTH SERVANT is a much more intriguing book than the one imagined based on the publisher's description!   For this reader, THE FIFTH SERVANT is much more than a depiction of the period or a clever configuration of clues but rather a book that will remain in my imagination due to its unique voice.  Excellent!

Publisher: William Morrow (January 26, 2010)
Author website

Reviewed by Merrimon, Merrimon Book Reviews
Courtesy of Amazon Vine
Merrimon Book Reviews

Custom Search

Copyright Merrimon Crawford  2009  All Rights Reserved