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Monday, February 14, 2011

Intelligent Historical Thriller Proves Me A Lightweight

(Image from Indiebound)

I've tried writing a plot summary for Kenneth Wishnia's newest mystery, The Fifth Servant, three times and it's just not working. So, I'm giving up and letting Library Journal do the job for me:

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.

Sounds like a typical, high-stakes, edge-of-your-seat thriller, doesn't it? Well, it is. Except when it isn't. Clear as mud? Let me explain. The Fifth Servant features a hero typical of the genre - Benyamin is a good-hearted, down-on-his-luck underdog, a character who's both sympathetic and likable. He finds himself in a dangerous situation, racing against the clock to save an entire people. Mistrusted by almost everyone in the city and without the aid of modern forensics, Benyamin's at a distinct disadvantage, which makes his plight even more exciting. So, we have an admirable but ordinary man desperate to find a killer in a city where he has few friends. Plenty of crime writers have taken on that storyline. Where The Fifth Servant differs is in scope. The story's much denser than other murder mysteries, veering into history, theology, philosophy and science. I'll admit these tangents often confused me, sometimes bored me, and occasionally pulled me so far away from the story that I wasn't sure I wanted to continue with it. Because, really, the book is a thinking man's (or woman's) thriller and I just didn't feel like thinking that much.

Still, Wishnia writes well, describing 16th Century Prague in such detail that I had no trouble picturing it in my head. He creates a variety of complex, believable characters, all of whom are interesting in their own ways. The author definitely made history come alive for me, I just wanted the story to move a little bit faster. I hate to sound like a lightweight who gets bored without constant action, but that's kind of how I felt with this one. The Fifth Servant is vivid, it's interesting and it's thought-provoking. However, it requires a lot of patience. If you're looking for a fast-paced, exciting read, this might disappoint. If you're looking for a rich, detailed, intelligent mystery, then this is the book for you. Unfortunately, I fell into the first camp on this one. I enjoyed The Fifth Servant, but I would have enjoyed it a whole lot more if it had been about 200 pages shorter. Go ahead, call me a lightweight. I can handle it.

(Readalikes: Reminded me a lot of Mistress in the Art of Death by Ariana Franklin)

Grade: B-

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language (no F-bombs), violence and some sexual content

To the FTC, with love: I received a finished copy of The Fifth Servant from the generous folks at Harper Collins and TLC Book Tours, for whom this review was written. You can see more details on Kenneth Wishnia's virtual tour here.


  1. Hahaha...a very good review.

    Happy Valentine Day :D

  2. I'm sorry this one wasn't your cup of tea but thanks for sticking with it and sharing your opinion. Not every book is a good fit for every reader - hopefully your next pick will be better for you!

  3. Lightweight, LOL

    Good review, I thought the book was great, maybe because it has my sarcastic/sardonic sense of humor.

    Here is my review:

  4. Avid Reader :)16 March, 2011 14:30

    Sorry this one wasn't what you were looking for, maybe try Scimitar by Robin Raybould? It's pretty unique given his academic background:

    You can read about it here:

    or just get it here:


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