The Fifth Servant

By Kenneth Wishnia

The Short Take:

I really liked this book, but not so much as a mystery. Instead, I found it to be a fascinating and highly intelligent historical fiction that presents the religious practices, fears, and suspicions of the Catholics, Protestants, and Jews of 16th century Prague in an entirely engrossing way.


You can almost taste and smell Vishia’s Prague, from a family’s Seder meal in the cramped Jewish Ghetto to the Inquisition’s torture chambers. And it’s a fascinating — and terrifying — place to visit. While the Jews theoretically live under the protection of the German Emperor Rudolph !!, nothing really protects them from the other citizens — Protestant and Catholic alike – who are only united by their common misconceptions and hatred. Not that there is any love lost between those two groups, either — each thinks the other should burn sooner rather than later in the fires of hell.

On top of this a visiting Bishop is determined to roust out any and all witches, and he has all the tools at hand he needs to get anyone to confess. In other words, there’s plenty of not-quite-bottled up fear to go around, and anything can set off a bloodbath.

But what I really enjoyed most about this novel was the characters’ religious discussions and debates concerning Jewish laws and practices. I admit to pretty much complete ignorance about the learned religious writings of Jewish philosophers and leaders. The samples Wishnia included in his novel were compelling indeed. I did not realize until after I finished, that one of the Rabbis was in fact a very famous reformer (I told you I as ignorant). I really want to know more about Rabbi Loew, the Kabbalah and more.

The crime and its investigation set everything in motion and drive the actions of the central figures, but its resolution is not what grips you. After all, when the lives of everyone in the Ghetto could be forfeit, one murder doesn’t seem that important.

A Little Plot:

It’s Easter weekend and a young Christian girl is found murdered in the shop of a Jewish merchant. Christians are convinced Jews took her blood for evil purposes and want to burn their Ghetto and kill them all. It falls on the shoulders of a newly-arrived religious scholar, Benyamin Ben-Akiva to investigate this crime in the slim hope of preventing a massacre.

With laws from all sides hampering his efforts, not to mention outright hostility against his mission, Ben-Akiva risks everything in a journey that takes him from the shadowy rooms of a whorehouse to the royal palace of the Emperor.

But does he really have any chance of success?

For more about Wishnia and his book click here.

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