Even though I’ve read only two of his novels, I’ve recently taken a liking to the historical fiction of David Liss. His 2004 novel The Coffee Trader easily made my 2014 Favorite Fiction list while his 2014 offering The Day of Atonement not only made last year’s list but received my nod for best piece of fiction. Duly impressed with the novels of Liss, I hope to read more of his stuff in the near future.
Last week while searching my public library’s online catalog for books I could read for the European Reading Challenge I came across a listing for Kenneth J. Wishnia’s 2010 novel The Fifth Servant. After looking it up on Amazon, I saw The Fifth Servant had received a “starred review” from Publishers Weekly. As good an accolade as that might be, what really made me borrow a library copy was the praise it received from David Liss. “Whatever you are currently reading, I promise you it is not nearly as intelligent, witty, compelling, or entertaining as The Fifth Servant….Wishnia makes history come alive.” With a recommendation like that, how could I go wrong? After finishing The Fifth Servant earlier this morning down at my neighborhood coffee shop I’m happy to report Liss did not lead me astray.
Set during the 16th century in Prague, the novel begins when the body of a murdered young girl is found outside a Jewish-owned business. Given just three days to solve the murder, newly arrived shammes (a kind of custodian/gofer/low-level assistant for the local synagogue) Benyamin Ben-Akiva must navigate an array of hostile and reluctant personalities, both Jew and Gentile, if he’s to find the true killer before the city’s Jewish population is brutally punished. Fortunately Ben-Akiva is no mere flunky but instead a highly intelligent and educated individual who quickly blossoms into a brave man of action.
The Fifth Servant is an entertaining adventure with something for everyone: mystery, action, suspense, romance and even a little humor. Both mystery fans and fans of historical fiction will enjoy the novel. With much of it set in Prague’s Jewish Quarter and our heroic protagonist a brilliant Talmudist, I highly recommend The Fifth Servant to Jewish readers. Wishnia did a fine job painting a rich and vibrant picture of what the Jewish section of Prague looked like so many centuries ago. David Liss was right. This is a wonderful novel.