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.