A Thoroughly Diverting Servant

Wishnia’s Medieval Thriller Reads Like a 16th Century ‘CSI: Prague’

By Gordon Haber

Published June 16, 2010, issue of June 25, 2010.
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The Fifth Servant
By Kenneth Wishnia
William Morrow, 387 pages, $24.99

While I like to pretend that I’m a highbrow, I’ve always been a sucker for genre fiction — in my case horror novels, thrillers and science fiction. Sometimes it’s just great to read a book that is unembarrassed about its desire to entertain.

And since I’m drawn to almost any book with a Jew in it, it’s been fun to see lately how many Jewish-American writers have been combining elements of genre fiction with Jewish themes — like Dara Horn in “All Other Nights,” a Civil War-era spy novel with a Jewish protagonist, or Michael Chabon in “Gentlemen of the Road,” a swashbuckling novel that reportedly had the working title “Jews with Swords.”

Now, there are two things to keep in mind when we talk about genres and Jews:

First, this sort of work is not that new. S. An-sky’s ghost story, “The Dybbuk,” was first performed in 1920. Harry Kemelman’s mystery, “Friday the Rabbi Slept Late,” was published in 1964.

Second, whatever its aims, the work has to be good. It doesn’t matter if the writer has literary aspirations or merely wishes to divert: There must be credible characters in interesting situations. Thus I was disappointed by Daniel Levin’s “The Last Ember,” with its cardboard characters who were either a) running or b) explaining arcana to each other.

But I did thoroughly enjoy “The Fifth Servant,” a new novel by Kenneth Wishnia. A historical thriller, “The Fifth Servant” is set in Prague, on the eve of Passover, 1592. When the body of a Christian girl is found in a Jewish shop, the blood libel comes into play and its proprietor is accused of killing her. The gentile authorities give the Jews three days to find the killer, or they will punish the entire Jewish community.

The servant of the title, Benyamin Ben-Akiva, is the shammes, or sexton, of a synagogue in the Jewish ghetto. Benyamin is actually a Polish Jew. He has come to Prague to win back his wife, Reyzl, who fled from their life of poverty and obscurity in a Polish shtetl. But instead of wooing, Benyamin winds up running all over Prague, trying to find the killer and thus save the community from “exile, annihilation or both.”

Benyamin, “a tall Jew with a curly black beard” and “a look of controlled desperation,” may be a bit of schlemiel, but he’s a natural detective. (Shammes, the author tells us, can also be read as shamus, Yiddish slang for “policeman” or “detective.”)

He’s got a wry sense of humor plus a deep knowledge of Jewish law, and he’s pretty good with his fists. He even has a kind of badge, a contract signed by the great Rabbi Judah Loew to serve as “an Inquisitor of sorts — only for our side.”

Yes, that Rabbi Loew, the legendary creator of the Golem. I can’t say more about Wishnia’s use of the Golem without spoiling the story, but I can say that the author presents a kind of speculative origin of the legend, which, to me, was one of the less satisfactory aspects of the novel.

While Wishnia’s inclusion of historical figures usually works, much of Loew’s dialogue distracted me from the story. At times, the rabbi sounds like a socialist, railing against monarchism or “the mercantile system.” Other times, he sounds like a shrink, describing Benyamin in terms that seem anachronistically close to “self-esteem” and “inner child.”

In his introduction, Wishnia admits that he “needed to find a compromise between the excessively archaic and the jarringly modern.” A little too often in “The Fifth Servant,” that compromise is not reached.

And now I will stop criticizing.

“The Fifth Servant” isn’t perfect, but so what? It’s fun. Much of it reads like a 16th-century version of “CSI: Prague,” replete with an autopsy, forensics, even a ballistics experiment. I particularly liked that the pacing allowed for a large cast of characters, including an actual Inquisitor with gastrointestinal issues, an herbalist and one or two righteous gentiles.

Prague, too, is a character, filthy, crowded and bursting with religious tension. Occasionally, Wishnia also manages to wring some real pathos out of the story.

Most important, “The Fifth Servant” succeeds at its goal: to keep you turning pages, and, when you’re finished, wanting more.

Gordon Haber is a frequent contributor to the Forward.


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