Friday, April 15, 2011

Off The Beaten Track: Solving the Passover Mystery

Today’s guest is Edgar-nominated Kenneth Wishnia, who wishes us a Happy Passover with his latest historical mystery, The Fifth Servant. Set in the 16th century in Prague’s Jewish Ghetto, the novel just came out as a paperback reprint. On the eve of Passover, a Christian girl is found with her throat cut in a Jewish shop. The shammesa synagogue helper, in this case Benyamin Ben-Akiva – wards off the raging mob, stating that Jews are the emperor’s servants and promising severe penalties for anyone “who damages the imperial property.” The city’s sheriff gives him three days to find the murderer – a tight schedule for a young newcomer with no connections and restricted by rabbinical law. But Benyamin enlists a few unlikely helpers: the famous rabbi Judah Loew, a Christian woman Anya, and even the emperor himself! 

It took Wishnia seven years and 14 drafts to research and write this book, including taking a yearlong sabbatical from his teaching job and making a trip to Prague to “get the basic lay of the land – how high the castle is and how wide the river.” In his own words, “That pile of papers is just the drafts. It does not include the 1,200 single-spaced pages of notes, plus three handwritten notebooks.” The book comes with a mini Yiddish dictionary at the end.

My parents always told us that the story of the major Jewish holidays can be summed up as follows: They tried to kill us. They failed. Let’s eat.

This is true of Purim, Hanukkah, and especially Pesach (Passover). At the Passover Seder, the primary ritualistic duty is to tell the story of how the Israelites rebelled against Pharaoh’s oppressive system and fled to the wilderness. Each of us must feel that we have personally experienced this exile from Egypt because, we are taught, in every generation, oppressors have risen up against us, and that we must all flee our own personal version of Pharaoh’s oppressive Egypt.

When my friend and fellow crime writer John Westermann heard that I was working on The Fifth Servant (Morrow, 2010), a Jewish-themed historical thriller set in Prague in 1592 during Pesach and Holy Week, he told me, “The only reason to write a historical novel is to comment on the present.”

I couldn’t agree more.

With so many Americans having extremely shallow historical memoriesa few months at bestI believe that it is crucially important to show how, despite the changes in technology, fashion, and knowledge, societies have been dealing with the same basic problems for centuries. (Most Jews, by contrast, have very long historical memories.)

The period I chose, March 1592, attracted me for many reasons. First and foremost, the great Rabbi Judah Loew (of the Golem legends) was active in Prague at the time. What better time and place to represent the Kafkaesque position within larger society that Jews (and other ethnic minorities) often find themselves in? (And you can’t write about Jews in Prague without engaging in some way with the spirit of Kafka.)

My original intent was to set the novel earlier, say in the 14th century, when the division between Jews and Christians was more clearly marked. The medieval attitudes towards Jews were almost completely black and white: by the 16th century, many more complexities had set in (primarily economic ones), which provided many more possibilities and occasions for the kind of ambiguity that makes a great story so emotionally resonant.

The 1590s is also a fertile period to write about because people were on the cusp of modernity but not quite there: science was advancing, but the discoveries of Galileo still lay more than 15 years in the future. Every generation seems to believe that it is the natural culmination of all that came before, and I wanted to highlight how ephemeral so many “eternal” ideas and trends really are by choosing a moment in time (my whole story takes place in less than three days) and showing how, although the external trappings of civilization have changed, people are essentially the same.

For me, this is the main attraction of writing a historical novel. After all, how are we supposed to effect long-term change for the better without knowledge of the struggles that came before?

To read more about Ken, visit


  1. What a fascinating intersection of ideas and mysteries, Ken! Sort of Barbara Tuchman meets, I don't know, Raymond Chandler? I can't wait to check this book out. And love that photo! (I sure hope you recycle.) Thanks for blogging with us today. Chag Sameach!

  2. Wow, that stack of draft manuscripts is impressive - and a little intimidating. I agree that reading history, or historical novels, gives us insight into our own times. Sometimes how little we've learned from the past. Societies tend to repeat the same mistakes over and over.

  3. Ken, thank you for such an interesting post. Your last paragraph is perfect and I agree with it with 100%. Your book sounds amazing. I look forward to reading it and I am very impressed with your research. Wow.