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The Fifth Servant

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Overview

Whoever saves a single life saves the entire world . . .

In 1592, as the Catholic Church and the Protestants battle for control of the soul of Europe, Prague is a relatively safe harbor in the religious storm. Ruled by Emperor Rudolph II, the city is a refuge for Jews who live within the gated walls of its ghetto. But their lives are jeopardized when a young Christian girl is found with her throat slashed in a Jewish shop on the eve of Passover. Charged with blood libel, the ...

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2010 Hard cover First edition. STATED 1ST EDITION, 1ST PRINTING New in new dust jacket. BRIGHT CLEAN, BRAND NEW Glued binding. Paper over boards. With dust jacket. 387 p. ... Contains: Illustrations. Audience: General/trade. Read more Show Less

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The Fifth Servant: A Novel

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Overview

Whoever saves a single life saves the entire world . . .

In 1592, as the Catholic Church and the Protestants battle for control of the soul of Europe, Prague is a relatively safe harbor in the religious storm. Ruled by Emperor Rudolph II, the city is a refuge for Jews who live within the gated walls of its ghetto. But their lives are jeopardized when a young Christian girl is found with her throat slashed in a Jewish shop on the eve of Passover. Charged with blood libel, the shopkeeper and his family are arrested. All that stands in the way of a rabid Christian mob is a clever Talmudic scholar, newly arrived from Poland, named Benyamin Ben-Akiva. Pleading the shopkeeper's innocence to the city's sheriff, Benyamin is given three days to bring the true killer to justice.

But the search will not be easy. Hampered by rabbinic law, and with no allies or connections, Benyamin has only his wits, knowledge, and faith to guide him on his quest—a trail that weaves from the city's teeming streets to the quiet of a shul, from the forbidden back rooms of a ghetto brothel to the emperor's lavish palace.

The Talmud says many things in life depend on mazl, luck. Fortunately, Benyamin is blessed, for an unlikely group of heroes will risk their own lives to help him discover the truth: Anya, a Christian butcher's daughter; the renowned reformist rabbi Judah Loew; a wise herbal healer known as Kassandra the Bohemian; and even the emperor himself.

Who would most profit from the girl's murder—and from having the entire ghetto sealed off? Is the killer a Christian indebted to the girl's apothecary father? Or a messianic Jew bent on the destruction of his people to precipitate the Messiah's coming? The desperate search for answers is complicated by the arrival of a new Holy Inquisitor determined to root out witchcraft and heresy, and reclaim the fractious Bohemian territory for Rome. With time running out, Benyamin must dare the impossible—and commit the unthinkable—to save the Jews of Prague . . . and his own life.

Infused with history and spiritual insight, rich in atmosphere and color, The Fifth Servant vividly re-creates sixteenth-century Prague—a bustling city where superstition, ignorance, and hatred clash with curiosity, knowledge, and tolerance; a world in which innocent lives are swept away by political and religious struggles, and righteous men and women sacrifice everything in the name of justice and truth.

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Editorial Reviews

The Jewish Journal
“Think Sherlock Holmes with a dash of Woody Allen. Philip Roth and Stephen King. Mystery plus comedy. Detective novel meets Yiddish folk tale. Then add a little history and you have Kenneth Wishnia’s The Fifth Servant, a smart funny page turner that I hated to see end.”
Booklist
“Powerful . . . A densely philosophical yet surprisingly witty historical mystery.”
Forward
The Fifth Servant suceeds at its goal: to keep you turning pages, and, when you’re finished, wanting more.”
Albuquerque Journal on THE FIFTH SERVANT
“a compelling mystery”
I Love a Mystery
A brilliantly imagined, beautifully written combination of scrupulously researched historical novel and riveting suspense thriller [with] a uniquely unforgettable protagonist. A richly atmospheric tale of religion, mystery, and intrigue.”
Contra Costa Times on THE FIFTH SERVANT
“The characters are distinct and thoughtfully created. The mystery and how it is unraveled make a compelling story.”
Historical Novels Review on THE FIFTH SERVANT
“In another’s hands, the resulting novel might end up grim and pedantic, but Wishnia manages to turn the story into something Dickensian in its comic turns, richly drawn cast of characters, and plot twists.”
David Liss
“Whatever you are currently reading, I promise you it is not nearly as intelligent, witty, compelling or entertaining as The Fifth Servant by Kenneth Wishnia....Wishnia makes history come alive.”
Linda Barnes
The Fifth Servant offers a unique blend of mystery and Talmud set against an intriguing historical background.”
Ken Bruen
The Fifth Servant proves that academia, wit, and compelling mystery may all be found in one book. And what a suspenseful, enthralling story this is—accessible and hugely entertaining, it is an astonishing novel.”
S.J. Rozan
“The richness of the setting of The Fifth Servant is matched by the complexity and appeal of its characters. With apparent ease Kenneth Wishnia makes solid and real the sounds, sights, and smells of a vanished and legendary time.”
Publishers Weekly
Set in 16th-century Prague, Wishnia’s outstanding debut convincingly transforms a Jewish sexton and his rabbinic mentor into a plausible pair of sleuths. Just before the start of Passover, the discovery of the bloody corpse of Gerta Janek, “a blond girl, maybe seven years old,” inside the store of Jacob Federn, a Jewish businessman, triggers the inevitable revival of the blood libel and threat of mass retribution against the entire Jewish community. Benyamin Ben-Akiva, the newly arrived shammes, has three days to prove that someone other than Federn is guilty of Gerta’s brutal murder. He faces opposition from his own people, but manages to win the respect and support of the legendary Rabbi Loew, who helps him gain access to the body so that a rudimentary examination can be done, though many Gentiles are offended by the very notion. Well-developed characters and detailed portrayals of life at the time help make this historical crime thriller a gripping page-turner. (Feb.)
Library Journal
Life in central Europe during the 16th century was daunting, especially for the Jews of Prague. Forced by papal decree to live within a walled ghetto, Jews were relatively safe from Christian persecution—but not for long. On the eve of Passover in 1592, a young Christian girl is found murdered in a Jewish shop, causing panic for Christians and Jews alike. The Jews are accused of stealing the girl's blood, a crime that threatens to remove what little security and freedom they have. Recently arrived from Poland, the rabbi's new sexton, Benyamin Ben-Akiva, is given three days by the Jewish authorities to find the real killer, or the entire Jewish population could face annihilation. VERDICT This fast-paced historical from Edgar nominee Wishnia (23 Shades of Black) combines scholarly historical details that bring the 16th century alive with believable characters and a compelling mystery. Highly recommended for mystery lovers and fans of historical fiction. [See Prepub Mystery, LJ 10/1/09.]—Marika Zemke, Commerce Twp. Community Lib., MI
Kirkus Reviews
Christians ferociously persecute Jews during the Easter/Passover season in late-16th-century Prague. Most of this debut novel unfolds in or near the ghetto. Forbidden to leave its confines unless wearing "the Jew badge," the ghetto's denizens are nonetheless reasonably content in Prague, "a city that tolerated us, surrounded by an empire full of people who hated us," explains narrator Benyamin Ben-Akiva, a rabbinical student recently arrived from the provincial town of Slonim. One day, however, a Christian girl's body is discovered drained of blood, and Jews are immediately suspected of a ritual killing. The author has Christian characters voicing every paranoid prejudice handed down through the centuries, including the claim that "Jews kill a Christian every year so they can mix the blood with their filthy Passover bread." In an atmosphere of agitation, uneasiness and panic, even Christians who seem willing to live in uneasy accord with those practicing another religion are suspicious-sometimes secretively, sometimes overtly-of Jewish magic. Jewish authorities, hoping to stave off possible genocide by solving the murder themselves, put Benyamin on the case with Rabbi Loew. Unfamiliar with the culture of the city and far more hot-headed than the meticulous rabbi, Benyamin occasionally gets into trouble with his quick mouth. But his intuitive insights complement the rabbi's more rational, plodding approach, and they make a good team. Wishnia plays interestingly with role-reversal: A young Christian woman converts to Judaism, while a young Jew must disguise himself as a Christian to infiltrate a cadre plotting to destroy the ghetto during a week holy to both Jews and Christians. Worksnicely on at least three levels: as history, mystery and theology.
I Love A Mystery newsletter
A brilliantly imagined, beautifully written combination of scrupulously researched historical novel and riveting suspense thriller [with] a uniquely unforgettable protagonist. A richly atmospheric tale of religion, mystery, and intrigue."
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780061725371
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 1/26/2010
  • Pages: 387
  • Product dimensions: 5.90 (w) x 9.10 (h) x 1.40 (d)

Meet the Author

Kenneth Wishnia has a Ph.D. in comparative literature. His crime fiction has been nominated for the Edgar and Anthony awards. He teaches composition, literature, and creative writing at Suffolk Community College on Long Island, where he lives with his wife and children.

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 3.5
( 9 )
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Sort by: Showing all of 9 Customer Reviews
  • Posted December 14, 2009

    more from this reviewer

    Good Period Piece!

    Fascinating period piece about a Polish Jewish town in the 1500's. Benjamin is a Shammes, new to the town and a murder of a Christian girl takes place and the body is found in the shop of a Jewish shopowner. Tempers are high and the Christians plan to burn the Jewish town in three days if the murderer is not brought forward. Benjamin must become a detective and try to find who did it.

    The book presents the frightening horrors presented to the Jewish community. Totally misunderstood and branded as "heretics" by the Inquisition, they live in the constant fear of being murdered by angry mobs. Additionally, they are not allowed to work in most professions allowed to Christians.

    Those of Jewish background will love the many discussions of Torah, Talmud, Mishnah and Kabbalah that are prevelent throughout this work and there are a great deal of Yiddish expressions thrown in. There are a lot of typical Jewish arguing such as when the Shammes has to argue with a Rabbi as to whether it is alright to build a wall to protect the city at the beginning of Shabbes. Benjamin says by protecting the people, they will be able to atone for a disgression at many succeeding Shabbes' while the Rabbi says that it is worse to commit a sin of building on the Shabbes.

    The author tries to throw in some expressions that are modern slang and he says that these expressions were actually around during that time.

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 20, 2010

    more from this reviewer

    Couldn't Read It

    There is no way I could finish this book...I got half way through it and wondered why I was punishing myself.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 8, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    A Clever Novel

    "The Fifth Servant" by Kenneth Wishnia is a fictional mystery set in 1592 at Jewish Ghetto in the city of Prague. The book is rich with Jewish culture and the tensions between Jews and Christians.

    Benyamin Ben Akivah is a shamash, the caretaker of a temple, and new to the Jewish community. Benyamin is not only a scholar but a proud Jew with a temper which he finds difficult to control. When a Christian girl's body is found in the ghetto just before Passover Benyamin must prove to the Christian community that it is a blood libel case before the ghetto is destroyed.

    Working together with the freethinker Rabbi Lowe they must work fast while keeping the Jewish laws and restrictions regarding the holiday of Passover.

    "The Fifth Servant" by Kenneth Wishnia is told through the eyes of Benyamin Ben Akivah, a Talmudic scholar who follows his disgruntled wife from Poland to Prague. The book takes place over three days and two nights when Benyamin tries to solve a blood libel incident which weighed down the Jewish communities up until the 20th Century.

    This is a clever book, filled with excellent research, vivid imagery, and good writing sprinkled with humor. The medieval ghetto life is convincing and rich in detail, city of Prague comes to life even though it wouldn't be a place I'd want to live in (especially not at that time). While the book is a mystery it is not formulaic and uses a new and unique voice which examines the ancient Jewish texts like the bible, Talmud, Torah, Kabbalah and to my joy The Book of Zohar to tell the story.

    There are many conflicts in the book, not only between Jews and Christians but also between rich and poor, men and women, freethinking rabbis and their conservative counterparts as well as leaders of the Christian church who see the role of the inquisition as fleshing out heretics and those who are just a bit too happy to use it as an excuse to torture Jews and take their fortune (splitting it between the emperor and the Church as was the costume).

    I liked the way that Mr. Wishnia imagined how people in the 16th Century thought. Women, who were part of the community, had to do things in secret even though they were pillars of the community. There is great insight on how Jews were persecuted and the struggles they faced. However, the author uses these adversities to highlight the Jewish spirit and perseverance.

    There are many characters in the book but and they are all very well drawn. Besides the protagonist a standout characters was Anya, a bright Christian girl, daughter of a butcher as well as Sheriff Zizska of Prague, Rabbi Loew and even Emperor Rudolph II made an appearance.

    While I truly enjoyed this book, it is not for everyone (but really, what book is?). The book is filled with my kind of humor, sarcastic, self deprecating and sardonic however it is not a light or easy read. This book will most likely appeal to those interested in Jewish history, Jewish folklore and/or the time period.

    There are many Hebrew, Yiddish and some German words/phrases peppered throughout the book, the author does translate the important ones and also includes and excellent glossary at the end to assist the readers.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 13, 2010

    Good read

    An enjoyable book, although the ending is rushed. A little on the scholarly side with a lot of deep questions posed within the context of the story. Not a light read. Still, the best book I read all winter.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 2, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Gritty Look into 16th Century Prague

    Richly described and exuding the smells and sounds of what 16th century Prague surely must have been like, Wishnia has clearly researched thoroughly for The Fifth Servant, and it is a strikingly beautiful and gritty look into this time period. Whether it is a group of Jesuits walking on the cobbled streets, or a tough scene of torture and interrogation of a potential "witch," Wishnia has superbly captured scenes so vivid that in several instances, a moment of reflection was needed before proceeding. I look forward to more of his work. Once I got used to the modernization of the language even though it was set in the 16th century, it was a highly enjoyable read. I appreciate Jewish fiction and especially historical fiction, so to be able to combine the two and then throw a murder mystery on top of that, added to my overall pleasure. While I do wish the mystery played a more central part throughout the story, I could accept that the primary discussionWishnia focused on was of the interaction and struggles that the Jewish community experienced during this time. The spiritual and personal challenges of Ben-Akiva and others provided fantastic character development, and I enjoyed the insight into these characters. Wishnia does provide a helpful glossary in the back of the book, however he does a fantastic job of sentence structure to contextualize it so that you may not need to use the glossary.

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