Harry Kemelman Analysis


(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Harry Kemelman’s Nicky Welt stories represent a revival of the intellectual armchair detective, who solves crimes much as he solves chess problems, through the use of his superior logic and for his own entertainment. Welt is not interested in morality or justice but in demonstrating his mental superiority, especially his superiority over his closest friend, chess partner, and faithful “Watson,” the nameless narrator, who identifies himself as the Fairfield County attorney and a former law-school faculty member at Nicky’s university.

Although the Nicky Welt stories are clever and entertaining, their chief significance lies in the fact that they are the forerunners to the Rabbi David Small series. As Kemelman himself wrote, “Rabbi David Small can be said to be the son of Professor Nicholas Welt.” Like Nicky Welt, David Small solves cases through logical analysis. The rabbi’s logic is derived not from chess but from pilpul, the traditional, hairsplitting analysis used in yeshivas (rabbinical schools) to study the Talmud, the Judaic oral law that interprets the Torah (the Pentateuch). By using a rabbi as his detective, Kemelman turned his mysteries into a series of lessons in ancient Judaic tradition and modern Jewish sociology—“a primer to instruct the Gentiles,” according to Anthony Boucher. Rabbi Small becomes involved in sleuthing to help those who have been unjustly accused and to restore moral order to his corner of the universe. Although Nicky Welt arrogantly demonstrates his own superiority over lesser mortals, Rabbi David Small gently discourses on Judaism’s ethical superiority over Christianity.

Critic Diana Arbin Ben-Merre has pointed out that Kemelman’s most significant achievement was in expanding the cultural horizons of American and British detective and mystery fiction. Until the 1960’s, with the emerging popularity of Rabbi Small, no significant Jewish characters existed in detective fiction without the onus of lingering stereotypes and anti-Semitism. In creating a space for Jewish issues within the detective milieu, Kemelman built on the success of Jewish-American postwar novelists such as Saul Bellow, Bernard Malamud, and Philip Roth, who helped establish the value and interest of Jewish culture.

Harry Kemelman Bibliography

(Masterpieces of Fiction, Detective and Mystery Edition)

Breen, Jon L., and Martin H. Greenberg, eds. Synod of Sleuths: Essays on Judeo-Christian Detective Fiction. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1990. Discusses Kemelman’s Rabbi David Small and other Jewish and Christian religious figures in detective fiction.

Freese, Peter. The Ethnic Detective: Chester Himes, Harry Kemelman, Tony Hillerman. Essen, Germany: Verlag Die Blaue Eule, 1992. Study of the representation of ethnicity in the detective genre, focused on Himes, Kemelman, and Hillerman’s portrayals of African Americans, Jews, and Native Americans, respectively.

Hershinow, Sheldon, and Margaret King. “Judaism for the Millions: Harry Kemelman’s ’Rabbi Books.’” MELUS 5 (Winter, 1978): 83-93. Brief discussion of Kemelmans’s Rabbi Small series as mass entertainment and the process of representing Jewish culture and ethics to a non-Jewish audience.

Lachman, Marvin. “Religion and Detection: Sunday the Rabbi Met Father Brown.” The Armchair Detective 1 (October, 1967): 19-24. Comparison of Rabbi Small to G. K. Chesterton’s Father Brown and the uses to which religion is put in each character’s stories.

Long, Tom. “Harry Kemelman, Mastermind of Rabbi Small Mysteries, at Eighty-eight.” Boston Globe, December 17, 1996, p. C17. Obituary of Kemelman notes that his first book was published at the age of fifty-five. The Boston native mixed Jewish elements with small-town images in his works.

Malcolm, Cheryl Alexander. Unshtetling Narratives: Depictions of Jewish Identities in British and American Literature and Film. Salzburg, Austria: Poetry Salzburg, 2006. Study of the representation of Jewishness and Judaism; places Kemelman’s Rabbi Small in a broader literary and cultural context. Bibliographic references and index.

Maryles, Daisy. “PW Interviews: Harry Kemelman.” Publishers Weekly 207 (April 28, 1975): 8-9. Interview with the author in a professional trade publication, pitched toward an insider audience.

Roth, Laurence. Inspecting Jews: American Jewish Detective Stories. New Brunswick, N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2004. Detailed examination of the figure of the Jewish American detective and of the Jewish American authors who write about him. Puts Kemelman’s work in perspective.

Sipe, A. W. Richard, and B. C. Lamb. “Divine Justice: William F. Love’s Bishop Regan and Harry Kemelman’s Rabbi Small.” The Armchair Detective 27, no.1 (Winter, 1994): 58-61. Another comparison between fictional Christian and Jewish clerical sleuths.