Posts Tagged ‘Kenneth Wishnia’

Italian Review of “Fifth Servant”

April 9, 2010

A review of the Italian edition of Ken Wishnia’s “The Fifth Servant” is posted here
Just have google translate ..

Sherlock Holmes, The Fifth Servant, and the Ghetto of Prague

February 17, 2010

The Fifth Servant coverThe Fifth Servant, an extraordinary  new book by Kenneth Wishnia, takes us on a journey through the  murderous, twisted streets of 16th century Prague, in the company of a sardonic scholar named Benyamin Ben-Akiva.   As Charlotte  Gordon wrote  in the Jewish Journal:

“Think Sherlock Holmes with a dash of Woody Allen. Philip Roth and Stephen King. Mystery plus comedy. Detective novel meets Yiddish folk tale. Then add a little history and you have Kenneth Wishnia’s “The Fifth Servant” .. a smart funny page turner that I hated to see end. …Talmudic scholars, it turns out, are perfect detectives.  They’ve been trained to rely on reason and close observation, just like a certain denizen of Baker Street.”  (See the entire review at

Naturally, as a Sherlockian, I was intrigued by the book.  An interview with Kenneth Wishnia follows.  My questions, below, are in bold.  His answers are in plain type.

The man who left the girl’s body was about 6 feet tall, and strong enough to lift ninety pounds with one arm,” announces Ben-Akiva as he examines the crime scene. Shades of Sherlock Holmes!  Are the Holmes stories a conscious influence?

I’m pretty sure the Holmes stories are a conscious influence on just about every crime writer since 1887.  But in my case, absolutely.  I read all the stories in the canon by 8th grade.

The main connection between my detective and the figure of Sherlock Holmes is that the Jews of Prague, who are hopelessly outnumbered, can’t possibly fight their way out of this problem: they have to think their way out of it.  And while there is some physical action in the novel (as indeed there is in the Holmes canon), my character’s primary approach to resolving the crisis is a triumph of ingenuity and deduction over superior numbers and firepower.

Students of the Talmud are encouraged  to make deductions based on what is present in the text, but also what is absent: “Inferences may be drawn not only from what is explicitly said . . . somewhat like  the famous dog who “did nothing in the nighttime.”

We all know that Sherlock Holmes’s mother was French (and presumably the source of the great detective’s occasional displays of emotion and romanticism).  Maybe she was part Jewish, as well?

When you began writing this book, did you know the identity of the murderer or did this gradually evolve in your mind?

I enjoy making discoveries along the way (some of the best passages are produced in this manner), but I always seem to know whodunit before I even start writing the first sentence.  And with a plot this complicated, I had to know where most of the threads were going way ahead of time.

The book draws on an unusually large number of sources—did you need a number of languages to research?

I read some articles in French and (with my Dad’s help) Yiddish, but I could have gotten away with English only in terms of research.  Being able to read a bit of Hebrew is extremely useful when you’re trying to read the Bible against the grain of 2,000 years of superimposed Christian interpretation.  But Modern Israeli Hebrew is pronounced differently, so when my characters quote the Bible in Hebrew, I needed to consult a linguistic expert on 16th century Ashkenazic pronunciation to advise me on how to transliterate the phrases accurately.  Maybe 2 percent of my readers would have spotted this, but I knew I still had to do it.

Has Jewish history, folklore and superstition been a long-time interest of yours?

Sure.  Ever since I married a devout Catholic 24 years ago. A few months before our wedding, I decided that I should learn something about my wife’s culture by reading the New Testament.  What followed was something like a reverse-Revelation: I realized that I already knew every significant moment in the Gospels.  In fact, I knew parts of the New Testament better than the Old Testament, simply because I grew up in the US, a society where the overarching culture is unmistakably Christian. I grew up in a secular household where the primary emblems of Jewish culture were bagels and Woody Allen movies—not a bad start. . . . So I bought a Hebrew Bible and started reading it while accompanying my wife to Mass.

The hero of The Fifth Servant has a very empathetic and romantic view of women. Do you share it? Why?

I’m pretty empathetic by nature, and I’ve written five novels from a woman’s  point of view (the Edgar- and Anthony-nominated Filomena Buscarsela series). It certainly helped that my Mom was one of the founders of the Women’s Studies program at SUNY Stony Brook.  So we were all brought up doing “women’s work” around the house, which may not sound like much, but two generations later, I have young men in my classes whose moms or girlfriends still do their laundry for them.

As for the romantic view of women, well, I am a guy, after all. . . . The main character, like so many fictional investigators, is an outsider in the world of the novel, and one of his principal desires is to belong to the world that surrounds him: he wants a deeper connection with his wife, and he wants to be accepted by the larger community.  This comes from deep within myself, but it is also part of the Jewish tradition: the Hebrew Bible views sex within the bounds of marriage as a joyful thing, and the Kabbalistic tradition considers it a mystical phenomenon with cosmic repercussions.  So it’s a fusion of my own feelings and traditional Jewish thought.

“Every act leaves a trace” you have  Rabbi Loew say, in The Fifth Servant. This is , of course, a form of  Locard’s principle,  a basic part of forensic science, and is usually stated as   “Every contact leaves a trace.”  Is there really a root for this in early Jewish tradition?

Indeed there is, though it is part of a mystical tradition rather than forensic science (I invented the link between the two).  Enough people out there are familiar with Rabbi Loew’s writings, so I had to stick fairly close to his beliefs and his manner of expressing himself.

Speaking of waterboarding, which you do in your book—which I know has a long and unpleasant history—what specifically was your source for this?

Oy vey iz mir.  Several sources, including R. Po-Chia Hsia’s The Myth of Ritual Murder, and the Museum of Torture in Prague, where I learned that the stocks, the strapada, and water torture were all considered “light” forms of punishment because they do not leave permanent physical damage (where have we heard THAT before?).  Unlike, say, the Brustzerreiser: a set of spiked iron clamps that were heated over the fire and then used to tear an accused witch’s breasts to pieces.  Of course, when those are your standards, I guess water torture is pretty “light” by comparison.

What struck me the most when reading the transcripts from blood libel torture sessions (the Germans kept very good records) was how utterly routine such torture was.  In fact, when I was planning the torture scene, the image in my head was two working stiffs casually going about their business while chatting about last night’s Yankee game.  Of course, I couldn’t use that, but I tried for the 16th century equivalent, while going out of my way NOT to describe ANY specific act of torture.  The horror is all in the reader’s mind.

Was your publisher/editor cool with your mention of the Prick from Prague?

No one said a word, so I guess a couple of jokes buried in the Acknowledgments were just fine with them.

Anything you would like to add?

On the subject of torture, as early as the 1520s, a German evangelical reformer named  Andreas Osiander wrote that “when a Jew is being tortured, it doesn’t matter whether he speaks the truth or not because his tormentors would not stop until they have heard what they want to hear.”  Sadly, very little has changed since then.