Saturday, December 11, 2010

'The Fifth Servant': Private Eye Mystery, 16th Century Style

Review: THE FIFTH SERVANT (William Morrow January 2010)
Author: Kenneth Wishnia


If anyone had told me previously that I'd be thoroughly engrossed by a mystery involving a Jewish shammes (or sexton of a synogogue) in 16th Century Prague, I'd probably have been skeptical. However, as the old saying goes, you should never assume, because you know what happens when you do.

Which is to say that THE FIFTH SERVANT by Kenneth Wishnia is every bit as engrossing as any modern detective story I've ever read.

The protagonist, Benjamin Ben-Akiva, is a new Talmudic scholar who's come to Prague under the weight of a few acceptance issues, by his own scholarly crowd as well as his wife, both of whom are more than a little disappointed in him.

Unfortunately, Prague turns out to be, rather than an improvement, a hotbed of Jewish oppression (Jews are confined to life in the ghetto and forced to wear identifying badges) and Catholic domination. Protestants are (sort of) caught in the middle, enjoying a tentative peace with the Jewish merchants with whom they do business. A peace that's shattered when a young girl is found shot to death (with her throat slit, as part of an alleged ritual) in a Jewish merchant's shop.

As an outsider, Benjamin is able to view the situation with a relatively non-judgmental eye. He's clever and tends to crack wise almost as much as a modern day shamus. In fact, the book is prefaced with a short explanation of how the word "shamus" was probably derived from the Yiddish word "shammes." (Clever!)

The story is essentially a private eye story transplanted into an archaic setting. Benjamin is the alienated detective seeking out the clues and following his own credo, while trying to ferret out the truth in a corrupt society. In doing so, he enlists the help of various wise rabbis, with whom he exchanges many Talmudic verses. So the book is not only entertaining, but outright educational.

Wishnia manages the neat trick of writing a great mystery that's also rich in historical detail. He brilliantly folds the conventions of the private eye novel into the 16th Century setting. Along with that, he manages to explore the long history of anti-Semitism, not to mention the many factions within the ranks of each belief system.

The place of women within that society is depicted as well, in subplots involving a suspected witchcraft practitioner and a (forbidden!) romantic interest.

Not only is THE FIFTH SERVANT modeled along the lines of a modern detective novel, but it seems to have a touch of the Western genre to it. Particularly the movie High Noon. To wit, I offer the following (really rough) analogy: the Catholics are the "black hats" riding into town to dominate it; the Jews are the oppressed "white hats" they're after; and the Christians are the townspeople too fearful to intervene.

Like High Noon, the story builds to a huge conflagration. And, after all is said and done, when the real bad guys have been apprehended, one of the Jews even tears his badge off and flings it into the dirt.

And, in the end, our heroes do nothing less than ride off into the proverbial sunset.

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