The Fifth Servant by Kenneth Wishnia is a complex historical fiction murder mystery, taking place in 1592 in Prague where Jews take refuge within the gated walls of a ghetto in one of the few places they are actually allowed to live. All that may be forced to change when the body of a young Christian girl with her throat slashed is found in a Jewish shop on the eve of Passover. The shopkeeper and his family are arrested, but more is at stake than just their freedom as the Christians may use this as an excuse to destroy the Jews. With less than three days to find the real killer, Talmudic scholar Benyamin is left to try to solve the crime."The Talmud asks, “Why are scholars compared to a nut?” The answer given is that even though the outside may be dirty and scuffed, the inside is still valuable. But I could think of other reasons for the comparison."
In The Fifth Servant, Wishnia does a great job of combining the historical with his murder mystery plot line, although I do think the historical aspects work much better than the mystery part, as it is waded down by all the details and more characters than I could easily keep straight. It's also not Wishnia's fault but when everyone goes by Rabbi or Reb I get easily confused trying to recall who has done what and sometimes the novel became too complicated for me. This wasn't helped by constantly throwing in interesting, but often irrelevant, historical facts and philosophical debates. In particular, I think the first 150 pages could have been trimmed down slightly as it took quite awhile to actually get into the story. Once I had settled into the book, I was able to enjoy the story even if it went occasionally off-topic.
The novel contains a lot of words in other languages, particularly Yiddish and Hebrew, and although there is a small glossary at the back I really think footnotes would have been beneficial in this case. It really interrupts the flow of the book to constantly be flipping around, especially since the glossary isn't even completely at the back at the book but actually precedes a bonus chapter about what happened to one of the characters. One aspect I appreciated about The Fifth Servant was the surprising sense of humour, particularly when it came to jokes about faith and religion between the various Rabbis and other individuals. However when it came to actual character development there were simply too many people in the story for all of them to feel dimensional and many came across as caricatures, for example the prostitute with the heart of gold or the friendly giant with mental disabilities.
The Fifth Servant offers so much to the reader, insight on everything from history to religion, that at times it becomes overwhelming and difficult to follow. I wanted to understand what was going on, but at times the story simply became too complex and with too much random information for it to really be clear in my head. There is a lot about the book that is interesting and well-written, but ultimately Wishnia simply overreaches and the result is that The Fifth Servant is an intelligent but overly confusing novel that is heavy on the historical and light on the actual mystery component.
Release Date: February 1st, 2010
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This review was a part of TLC Book Tours. Click here to read what other tour hosts thought. For the purpose of this review I was provided with a copy of the book which did not require a positive review. The opinions expressed in this post are completely my own.