“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.” LIBRARY JOURNAL (Starred Review)
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Mapping the Ghetto
One of the fun things I had to do was visit Prague to get a feel for the city and answer some basic questions such as: How high is the castle? How wide is the river? Which way does it flow? How tall is the Old Town Hall? That sort of thing.
But since most of the streets I was writing about don’t exist anymore (they were razed as part of a slum clearance project at the end of the 19th century), I also had another mission–visiting museums and archives to dig up materials so I could adequately reconstruct the original ghetto using old maps and photos.
So I took the best available map of the ghetto (based on Langweil’s model of Prague, completed in 1834) and added details from earlier maps, resorting to a magnifying glass when needed to decode the street names on bad photocopies of barely legible 18th-century German script (Oy, vey iz mir). Once I had all the streets labeled, I correlated that information with photos of known locations to get a sense of the layout of the old Jewish Town. For example, I was able to place a photo of the crumbling butcher shops and other structures at the corner of Fleisch-banksgasse and Rabinergasse (Butcher’s Block and Rabbi Street).
I kept this map next to my writing desk at all times until the locations were clear in my head. After that, I only had to check it once in a while.
Mapping the Language
The novel of course is written in modern American English, with bits of Czech, German, Hebrew and Yiddish thrown in to give a sense of the cosmopolitan flavor of late 16th-century Prague. But the standard pronunciation of Hebrew nowadays is Israeli (Sephardic) Hebrew, whereas most of my characters would be using the traditional Ashkenazic pronunciation.
Under this system, “Shabbat” (Sephardic) becomes “Shabbes” (Ashkenazic). OK, that was an easy one. But what about less familiar terms? I knew enough to change the Sephardic pronunciation of the Book of Exodus from “Shemot” to “Shemos”, but a linguistic expert checked over the manuscript and told me to change it even further to “Shmoys.” Similarly, the word for a marriage contract went from “ketubah” to “ksubeh.” But that wasn’t enough, because the main character, Benyamin Ben-Akiva, comes from Eastern Poland, where the pronunciation of Yiddish and Hebrew includes several vowel shifts.
Polish Yiddish vowel shifts:
- neyn → nayn (no)
- tog → tug (day)
- kum → kim (come)
And so “ksubeh” ended up as “ksibeh” in Benyamin’s mouth. (Have I said “Vey iz mir” yet?) Fortunately, the book comes with a 6-page glossary of foreign words and expressions.
Even the main character’s name presented a problem: the name Benjamin should be “Binyomin” in true Askenazic pronunciation, but I felt that would be a little too foreign for modern American readers, and compromised with “Benyamin.”
“Well-developed characters and detailed portrayals of life at the time help make this historical crime thriller a gripping page-turner.” Publishers Weekly (starred review)
“This fast-paced historical combines scholarly details that bring the sixteenth century alive with believable characters and a compelling story.” Library Journal (starred review)
“An extraordinary novel, which makes a long-vanished culture seem urgent, contemporary, and alive. Wishnia gets the nuances just right: the Yiddish is used perfectly and the religion, politics, and prejudices of the old German empire are as real and believable as if they were behind our television screens.” Sara Paretsky, author of Hardball (and reigning queen of the genre)
“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. A great protagonist, a vivid set of supporting characters, a winning voice, a gripping plot, and a lively historical context–this book is the total package. Too many historical novels try to make text books come alive. Wishnia makes history come alive.” David Liss, author of The Devil’s Company and The Whiskey Rebels
“In his fiercely intelligent and entrancing novel The Fifth Servant, Kenneth Wishnia gives us a 16th- century Prague that is rich, labyrinthine, and utterly compelling. Drawn in first by its soft wit, we soon find ourselves swept into a tale both intricate and haunting, its twists and turns carrying us breathlessly to the very last page.” Megan Abbott, Edgar Award-winning author of Bury Me Deep and Queenpin
“The Fifth Servant makes me want to scream ‘Dan Brown eat your heart out.’ This astounding novel proves that academia, wit, and a compelling mystery may all be found in one book. And what a suspenseful, enthralling story this is – accessible and hugely entertaining.” Ken Bruen, author of Sanctuary
“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.” S. J. Rozan, Edgar Award-winning author of The Shanghai Moon
“Well-developed characters and detailed portrayals of life at the time help wanting more.” The Forward
“Powerful . . . A densely philosophical yet surprisingly witty historical mystery.” Booklist
“Works nicely on at least three levels: as history, mystery and theology.” Kirkus
“Think Sherlock Holmes with a dash of Woody Allen, Philip Roth and Stephen King. [A] smart funny page turner that I hated to see end.” The Jewish Journal
“Benyamin [and] Rabbi Judah Loew [are] a team worthy of Holmes and Watson with a little CSI thrown in. [Wishnia] has clearly researched a period of history that is rich in history and legend..”
The Jewish Times
“Reading Kenneth Wishnia’s new novel The Fifth Servant has been the most fun this reviewer’s had reading any book since Junot Diaz’s The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao two years ago. Wishnia deftly deploys his vast research to transport us to a very different time and place… and the characters’ psychological complexity only strengthens this richly textured and immensely entertaining book.” The New York Journal of Books
“Wishnia’s brilliant, intense, and well-researched tale has more than a touch of Yiddish humor, which keeps the reader engaged and thinking about the many intertwined concepts. This is a fast paced story with so much to teach the readers will want to set aside time to fully enjoy The Fifth Servant.” Jewish Book World
“Breathtaking… there is also considerable wit in the telling. A challenging but rewarding book..” The Denver Post
“Reads Like a 16th Century ‘CSI: Prague.’ It keeps you turning pages, and, when you’re finished, wanting more.” The Forward
“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.” I Love a Mystery
“A rollicking good, full-bodied story with delicious dialogue.” Hadassah Magazine
“Kenneth Wishnia’s The Fifth Servant is indeed “an extraordinary novel.” 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. [The main character’s] sleuthing takes him from yeshiva to brothel, from palace to graveyard, where he encounters some of the most engaging secondary characters in recent historical fiction. This book is highly recommended not just for those who like a good read, but for serious students of the craft of fiction writing.” Laurel Corona, The Historical Novels Society
“Totally engaging. There is a universality about it — both in time and place. If you have an adventurous spirit and the stamina to savor a long multicourse meal, then that is what “The Fifth Servant” successfully offers you. Sweet and savory, heavy and lean, it slowly educates the palate with a subtle richness.” Times Beacon Record Newspapers