Harry Kemelman Essay - Critical Essays


“Nicky Welt was born in the classroom,” says Harry Kemelman, describing the start of his career as a mystery writer. Trying to show a composition class that “words do not exist in vacuo but have meanings that transcend their casual connotations,” he noticed a newspaper headline about a Boy Scout hike and created the sentence, “A nine-mile walk is no joke, especially in the rain.” Fearing some sort of pedagogical trap, the class was unresponsive, but the sentence and its varying possible implications gave Kemelman the idea for his first Nicky Welt story, a story that he tried to write on and off for fourteen years. When it finally did jell it was like copying it down rather than writing it, according to Kemelman. Except for a few spelling changes, it needed no revision. Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine accepted it at once and offered Kemelman twenty-five-dollar increases in pay for each subsequent Nicky Welt story. It took Kemelman a year to write the second story, but after that, they flowed at the rate of one a month.

Nicky Welt

In the finest Sherlock Holmes tradition, Nicky solves crimes that are presented to him by baffled minions of the law, who possess all the clues but lack intellect to interpret what they know. Like Holmes, Nicky is a cold-natured, solitary figure whose few human contacts include a dedicated landlady who caters to his eccentricities and one devoted male friend who shares Nicky’s interests and chronicles his triumphs.

Rabbi David Small

Soon publishers were clamoring for a full-length Nicky Welt novel, but Kemelman had no interest in writing one. Although these stories were amusing, Kemelman believed that a longer work should say something more meaningful to the reader. Having just moved to the suburbs of Boston, he found himself, at the age of forty, the oldest member of a struggling new congregation. The young, suburban Jewish parents wanted to pass their religious traditions on to their children, but having been brought up at a time when religion had generally lost significance, they themselves had no such knowledge. What would happen to future generations of Jews reared in ignorance of their history? Kemelman wondered. Out of these experiences and questions came his first, never-to-be-published novel, “The Building of a Temple.” The editors whom Kemelman approached found the book pleasant but too low-keyed and lacking in excitement.

One of the editors, Arthur Fields, “jokingly suggested that maybe the book would be more interesting if it were written in the style of a detective story.” Driving home from Fields’s office, Kemelman passed the grounds of his suburban temple and was struck by the thought that its parking lot, a deserted spot on the edge of town, was a good place to hide a body. It also occurred to him that a rabbi’s traditional role in Europe had not been that of a religious leader hired by a congregation but rather that of a judge hired by the Jewish community to settle civil disputes. In that capacity, the rabbi had always acted as a detective, questioning witnesses and laying traps for liars. Rabbi David Small had just been born.

Like his literary father, Nicholas Welt, David Small is prickly, pedantic, and unprepossessing at first acquaintance. Unlike Nicky Welt, however, he becomes very lovable as the reader gets to know him better. More important, unlike Nicky Welt, who was created for the reader’s amusement, the rabbi is Kemelman’s spokesperson for his deepest concerns about the ancient Judaic tradition and its place in the modern world. Indeed, Kemelman has said,The purpose of the books is to teach and explain Judaism to Jews and Gentiles. The fact that the books, particularly Conversations with Rabbi Small are used in theology schools, seminaries, and conversion classes, indicates, I think, that they appear to serve their purpose.

Friday the Rabbi Slept Late

In his Edgar-winning first novel, Friday the Rabbi Slept Late (1964), Kemelman sets the stylistic and thematic pattern for the entire series. The rabbi is introduced in his habitual setting—at the temple and in trouble with his congregation. With the very first paragraph, the reader learns that Jewish morning prayers require the attendance of ten men and that phylacteries, small black boxes containing a passage taken from the Scriptures, are worn on the foreheads and upper arms of the congregants. The scene is thus set, and a Jewish custom is described and explained. Speaking among themselves, several of the men reveal that they find their young rabbi too traditional, too dogmatic, and too pale and rumpled looking to lead their progressive, assimilationist, and image-conscious temple. They want his contract terminated as soon as possible so they can bring in a rabbi more to their liking—a well-groomed, fund-raising organizer with the deep, resonant voice of an Episcopal bishop, a progressive ecumenicist who will let their wives serve shrimp cocktails at sisterhood suppers. In brief, they want a Gentile rabbi and a synagogue that is indistinguishable from any of the Christian churches.

Although the temple board members are united in their opposition to the rabbi, some of them are in conflict over a car that one member borrowed and returned with a damaged engine. Unaware of their machinations against him, the rabbi offers to serve in his traditional European capacity as a civil judge; he settles the case to everyone’s satisfaction, winning a few admirers in the process.

The scene then shifts to a seemingly unrelated plot. Elspeth Bleech, the unmarried nursemaid to the Serafino family, is seen suffering from morning sickness and preparing to visit a doctor. The narrative cuts back and forth from the board’s plans to oust the rabbi to Elspeth’s problematic pregnancy. The two stories seem totally unconnected until Elspeth, vainly awaiting her unnamed lover in a restaurant, meets Mel Bronstein, the business partner of Al Becker, the board’s most outspoken opponent to the rabbi. Mel invites the obviously jilted and distraught young woman to his table, and they spend a pleasant, chaste evening together. The next day, Elspeth’s corpse, dressed only in a slip and a raincoat, is discovered in the parking lot of the temple. She has been strangled in the backseat of the rabbi’s car, and David Small thus becomes the prime suspect in the case.


(The entire section is 2637 words.)