Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Review: The Fifth Servant by Kenneth Wishnia

Their first reaction to this crime is to seek vengeance, not justice. I had to do something to prevent disaster. That such a mission was probably doomed to fail did not excuse me from trying. As Rabbi Tarfon says, "It's not your job to finish the work, but you are not free to walk away from it." [excerpt from The Fifth Servant]

The Fifth Servant by Kenneth Wishnia
William Morrow, 2010
Fiction (historical, mystery); 400 pgs

When I first read the description of Kenneth Wishnia's novel, The Fifth Servant, I knew I had to read it. Set in late 16th century Prague during the inquisition when Catholics and Protestants are battling for control, the Jewish people in the ghetto are going about their lives, hoping attention is not turned on them. When the body of a young Christian girl is found on the floor of a Jewish businessman's shop, however, all eyes focus on the Jewish community and what is perceived as their Jew-magic. Shammes Benyamin comes upon the scene hoping to sort it out only to find himself more deeply involved than he could have anticipated. Suddenly it is on his shoulders to find out what really happened, prove that it was not a blood crime, and save the ghetto from complete destruction by the angry mobs outside the gates.

Benyamin is an outsider even in his own community. He is a newcomer who hasn't yet proven his value. He traveled from his home in Poland, following his wife, a woman who feels betrayed by him. Benyamin still has hope that he could win her back. With the prejudices and biases of the authorities involved with the murder investigation, Benyamin knows he has a difficult road to travel to get to the truth. He knows he cannot do it alone.

Anya is a Christian woman, the daughter of a butcher. She earns extra money by working as a servant in a Jewish home despite the prohibition by the Catholic Church against Christians working for the Jews. Because of Anya's foot in both worlds, she is the perfect person to ask for help with the investigation into the girls' murder, a friend of both Christians and Jews. She is observant and intelligent but must be careful.

There was much in the way of Talmudic thought and discussion throughout the novel, which I found quite interesting. I have long been interested in the Jewish faith and history. The author clearly did a lot of research into the traditions and history of the time period. The hostility between the various religious factions was a big focus of the novel. The Catholic Church in that region was very powerful and punitive. It seemed to be a fearful time, one where a cry of witchcraft or blasphemy by a neighbor would be enough to warrant punishment, even torture without a full investigation. My heart went out to the midwife who was only trying to make her living, having to watch her every step for fear she'd be accused of witchcraft.

The novel was told from the perspective of both Benyamin and Anya, one in first person the other in third. The Fifth Servant takes place over three days, but is not a fast paced book for all the author tries to accomplish, both in conveying the historical aspects of the time period as well as the more philosophical discussions that take place between the characters. There are also the personal stories: Benyamin's attempts to reconcile with his wife and Anya with her own internal struggles, including whether or not to pursue forbidden love. There is building tension, especially as Benyamin's deadline to bring forward the real killer approaches and the angry mob outside the gates grows more and more violent. The mystery itself, the search for what happened to the murdered girl, seemed almost secondary to the other events taking place in the book. Still, it definitely is what moved the story forward.

The Fifth Servant was not quite I expected, but I did enjoy it. I would have preferred there to have been more of a balance between the mystery itself and the other aspects of the novel; however, there was so much going on that I can see how challenging that might be. The inquisition is an interesting and sad part of our world's history, and I was inspired to do a little research into the time period and setting of the novel after finishing it--always a good sign.

Rating: ***1/2 (Good +)

Book Source:
Review copy provided through publisher as part of BookBrowse First Impressions review program.

© 2009, Wendy Runyon of Musings of a Bookish Kitty. All Rights Reserved.
If you're reading this on a site other than Musings of a Bookish Kitty or Wendy's feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.


  1. Ooh - you've piqued my interest in this one. I'll be on the lookout!

  2. This review has intrigued me. Sounds like a book I should check out...Thanks for highlighting it.

  3. The story sounds fascinating - too bad there are so many story lines going at one time.

  4. It is hard to find the right balance between character and action. This does sound interesting. The Last Ember by Levin is a good one that you might like.

  5. This sounds really good! It is similar in idea (though not THAT similar) to the David Liss series around a Jewish boxer turned detective in Georgian London. It sounds interesting, and I'm glad to know that theological discussion does not make it boring :-) Thanks for the review!

  6. I do that too - research about the topic or characters when I find the topic interesting enough to look into it further. This sounds like it would be one of those for me. Great review!

  7. I think this sounds really good. I don't mind when too many things are going on at once, as long as it's not too complicated to keep it all straight.

    Diary of an Eccentric

  8. Thank you to all who commented. I do hope you'll get a chance to read this one.

    Stacy - Thanks for the recommendation. I'll have to add The Last Ember to my wish list.

    Aarti - I think I may have a David Liss book in my TBR collection--if not, it's on my wish list. I'll have to figure out which and give him a try!

  9. The premise of this book is really interesting to me! Thanks for the review, Wendy.

  10. Amy - I thought so too! I'm glad I was able to read this one.

  11. Interesting coincidence - I am reading Mistress of the Art of Death, which is also about Jews being accused of murder, in this case, Christian children in medieval England. There is also a woman who can help solve the crime who might be accused of witchcraft. Guess I'm going to have to read this one, too!


Thank you for taking the time to visit Musings of a Bookish Kitty. Don't be shy! I would love to hear from you. Due to a recent increase in spam, I will be moderating all comments for the foreseeable future. Please be patient with me as it may take a few hours before I am able to approve your comment.