Harry Kemelman Essay - Kemelman, Harry

Kemelman, Harry

Kemelman, Harry 1908–

American writer of the diurnal detective fiction series, featuring Rabbi David Small, the first being The Friday the Rabbi Slept Late. (See also Contemporary Authors, Vols. 9-12, rev. ed.)

Mr. Kemelman, himself a faculty man, gives us a thoroughly refreshing change from the booze-and-broads and/or cool-spies-and-hot-pants atmosphere of contemporary 'tec novels: we are left to ponder whether scholarly rivalry, academic advancement and publication in learned journals is motive enough for murder. The title tale, "The Nine Mile Walk," even has Professor Welt solving a crime in progress purely on logical inferences from an overheard remark that "a nine mile walk is no joke, especially in the rain."…

[You] might become attuned to the Professor's brand of logic and find yourself out-racing his armchair toward a logical solution. This last is an indirect compliment to Mr. Kemelman, who gives the reader his fair share in facts and clues. For this we honor him—and even more for providing us with the classic cool of a cerebral sleuth.

Judith Crist, "Slaughter on Campus," in Book World (© The Washington Post), November 12, 1967.

The delightful novels about Rabbi David Small by Harry Kemelman, "Friday the Rabbi Slept Late" and "Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry," are among the very top best sellers, in hard covers, in the history of the formal detective story. Their phenomenal sales are probably due less to their excellence as essays in detection than to their warm portrayal of suburban, all-but-assimilated Jewish life. I hope that I am not destroying the sales potential of Mr. Kemelman's newest book when I reveal that this time all the characters are (so far as one knows) goyim. I trust that the countless Kemelman fans will nevertheless take to their bosoms ["The Nine Mile Walk"] …; it's a lovely book.

Anthony Boucher, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1967 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), November 26, 1967.

The puzzle [in Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home] is a good one, fairly clued and solved; but the best part of this and any Small tale is the wondrous warmth and assurance of the portrayal of Jews and Judaism. This is detective fiction at its most telling as social commentary.

Allen J. Hubin, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1969 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 2, 1969.

Rabbi David Small slept late on Friday, went hungry on Saturday and made Harry Kemelman a popular mystery writer. Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home shouldn't hurt that popularity. David Small again has a murder to solve, and this time an angry and divided temple congregation to deal with as well. He carries these burdens easily, fortified with Talmudic principles that enable him to see logic where Police Chief Lanigan sees only confusion….

As a non-reader of mysteries, my complaint about Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home, and by extension of the mystery form, is its slow pace and the simplicity of its plot. The novel, especially the psychological novel, supplies its devotees with a spiritual murder or two in almost every chapter; here there is only one, along with a great deal of mildly interesting information about the politics of a religious institution. I think I'd rather read fiction unadorned.

"Temple Politics," in Book World (© The Washington Post), May 25, 1969.

There was good reason for the success of the previous Rabbi Small books. [Harry] Kemelman gave the reader a crash course in American Jewish folkways—liberal religious orthodoxy, the attitudes of the Jewish middle class, their speech patterns, the position of the Teacher who occupies so important a place in Hebraic thought. In Rabbi Small he created a believable, testy, stubborn, fiercely honest man who by happenstance is thrown into murder cases. The rabbi solved these by a rigorous application of pilpul—Jesuitical (if one can use that description with a rabbi) logic.

Unfortunately, "Monday the Rabbi Took Off" is the weakest in the series. Can it be that Kemelman has so fallen in love with his rabbi that he has forgotten he is supposed to be writing mystery fiction? There is, to be sure, a rather uninteresting mystery in "Monday," but for the most part it is a straight novel that is part travelogue about the Holy Land…. Admirers of the Rabbi Small series will want to read this book. But don't expect much in the way of a mystery story.

Newgate Callendar, in The New York Times Book Review (© 1972 by The New York Times Company; reprinted by permission), March 19, 1972, p. 41.

If [Harry Kemelman's] novel [Monday the Rabbi Took Off] had been written by a Gentile, there could be charges of 'anti-Semitism!', for it reveals the Jewish characters as being utterly mean-minded; more concerned over the odd cent than with any other consideration. The bickerings, the hypocrisy, the double standards, make one wonder why the rabbi hadn't quit such a loathsome bunch earlier.

One calls it a novel. But is it? Or is it supposed to be a crime book? For the rabbi, when in Israel, out-Sherlock's Sherlock, solving a crime in the course of what seems a few minutes by sheer brillance of deductive reasoning—a crime that has, of course, baffled the official police….

The section that deals with the killing of a man by a terrorist bomb destroys what otherwise gives the impression of complete authenticity. It is too easy for the rabbi to solve the problem; too difficult to accept that any terrorist bomb manufactured by experts, could be rendered safe by merely pushing in a plunger.

Take out that incident and one is left with what one feels is an absolutely realistic account of the ups and downs of Rabbi David Small's life….

[Kemelman's] understanding of human nature, his ability to disclose character, throws a searchlight beam on what is terra incognito to the non-Jewish reader.

Is organised religion the truly great evil with which man has burdened himself? After you have read this work of Mr. Kemelman's, you may well begin to ponder the possibility. In the hands of a potential Hitler, it would be invaluable propaganda.

John Boland, in Books and Bookmen, September, 1972, p. 89.