February 11, 2010
The Talmudic Scholar Turns Detective
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” (William Morrow: $25.99), a smart funny page turner that I hated to see end.
The novel begins with the discovery of a corpse. A little girl’s been murdered, and the hero must find the killer. So who’s this hero? Benjamin’s a sharp, sarcastic, down on his luck kind of guy, separated from his wife and wishing he wasn’t, stuck in a low-paying, low-status job, a liberal thinker in a conservative world, surrounded by those who could care less about his innovative ideas or his academic credentials. He’s authored a paper on educational reform that’s been ignored by everyone except a few forward thinking scholars. In fact, he reminds me of some of my friends, underemployed smart people, who are unappreciated by their various institutions, and who resort to a kind of bitter irony that I, at least, find instructive and entertaining. Most of them, let me add, are Jews. In fact, the only real difference between my friends and Wishnia’s hero is that Wishnia’s man is from Prague, not the U.S., and he’s a Talmudic scholar who lived about 500 years ago, give or take a few decades.
Historical fiction doesn’t always speak to a contemporary audience. But Wishnia, a Comparative Literature professor, finds a linguistic middle ground between what he calls the “excessively archaic” and “jarringly modern.” Benjamin says things like, “Boy, that Jesus fellow sure gets around,” when he sees a crucifix on the bridge to the emperor’s palace. And, “maybe after this is over, we could all go to the New World and live among the Indians. I hear the tribes along the Mohawk River have a non-aristocratic kind of government.” These remarks don’t seem anachronistic. Instead, the narrator’s ironic (and modern) point of view helps us enter the world of the 16th century: our hero thinks like us and talks like us, even though he lives in a different time and place.
Mystery novels became popular during the height of the Industrial and Scientific Revolutions because they demonstrate our ability to make sense out of the mysterious, reason away superstition, and triumph over the irrational; and this is precisely what Benjamin does. 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. There’s an urgency, here, because the murder victim is a Christian, and the Christians are using the girl’s murder as an excuse to wipe out the Jews of Prague. It’s the old libel: a Christian child is dead; the Jews must have killed her to get her blood. Ultimately, Benjamin works on the case with the help of two Christians (not all Christians are bad in this book, and, for that matter, not all Jews are good).
Wishnia enriches the novel by including the points of view of other characters. We get to hear from a Catholic bishop and a Christian butcher’s daughter who falls in love with a Jew. We visit a Jewish brothel. The emperor’s palace. A torture chamber and a rabbi’s study. But most of our time is spent with our funny, long suffering narrator, the kind of guy it’s good to spend time with. He loathes the superstition that governs the peasants and despises the Jews who believe it is more important to observe the rules of Shabbat then to help save the ghetto. Benjamin’s humor, intelligence, and wisdom make him the centerpiece of this book. I hope we get to meet him again. Maybe this will be the first in a series: What do you say, Mr. Wishnia?
Charlotte Gordon’s most recent book is “The Woman Who Named God: Abraham’s Dilemma and the Birth of Three Faiths” (Little, Brown). She can be reached at her website: http://www.charlottegordonbooks.com