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for Books and Writers
by Bamber Gascoigne

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Harry Kemelman (1908-1996)


American mystery writer and a rabbi, famous for his series about the wise Rabbi David Small. Kemelman's hero is a master of theological discourse and an analyst of human behavior. Small's logic, learned from the Talmud, plays an important part in the plots. During the process of solving murder cases, he reveals ethical problems and ethnic prejudices in America and introduces the reader to informally to Jewish life and philosophy. Kemelman's books, which has been translated into several languages, can be enjoyed without much knowledge of Jewish culture.

"Religion!" The Rabbi was scornful. "Religion with us is ethical conduct..." (from Wednesday the Rabbi Got Wet, 1976)

Harry Kemelman was born in Boston, Massachusetts, the son of Isaac and Dora (Prizer) Kemelman. His parents had settled in Boston when they emigrated from Russia. Although they were not particularly religious, they decided to give their son a through education in Hebrew schools. Kemelman has confessed that he was not very enthusiastic about spending afternoons in classrooms, but at the age of eleven he became interested in Talmud, and found the debates lead by a rabbi inspiring. After attending Boston Latin School from 1920 to 1926, he studied English literature at Boston University, receiving in 1930 his A.B. In 1931, he earned a Harvard M.A. in English philology. Kemelman had early decided to pursue a career in literature but during the depression years he had to postpone his plans when he was unable to get a college teaching position. From 1935 to 1941, he worked as a teacher in several Boston high schools. "... I had to hold as many as four teaching jobs simultaneously to make up one inadequate salary", he later said. In 1936, Kemelman married Anne Kessin, a medical secretary-technician born in Denmark; they had three children.

Kemelman taught from 1938 to 1940 at Manter Hall School, Cambridge, and from 1938 to 1941 at North-eastern University Evening Division. During World War II, Kemelman served a chief wage administrator in the United States Army Transportation Corps. He then worked for War Assets Administration in 1948-49, and as a free-lance writer and a private businessman. In 1963, Kemelman was appointed assistant professor of English at the Franklin Technical Institute in Boston. Kemelman was also an assistant professor at Boston State College in the 1960s.

Kemelman's early stories appeared in Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine. His first hero, a white-haired New England college professor named Nicky Welt, solved a crime case on the basis of the overheard remark, "A nine-mile walk is no picnic, especially in the rain." After writing about half a dozen stories, Kemelman lost his interest in them. The Nicky Welt stories were collected as The Nine-Mile Walk, which appeared in 1967. Welt is born around the turn of the century. His "pupil" and chronicler of his cases in the District Attorney of Suffolk County, Massachusetts. Every Friday night they play chess. The evening is concluded with the solution to a mystery Welt has described before the game starts. Welt is the embodiment of an armchair detective – he do not use orthodox police methods but pure logic, as Jacques Futrelle's professor Van Dusen, called the Thinking Machine.

In the early 1960s, Kemelman wrote a novel about a community of Jews in New England. He had moved with his family to the small Yankee town of Marblehead, twenty miles north of Boston. The new surroundings gave material for his book The Building of the Temple. Kemelman tried to sell it without success to get a synagogue built. Arthur Fields, editor at Crows Publishers, suggested that Kemelman would add detective elements into it. It was rewritten and published as his first rabbi David Small story, Friday the Rabbi Slept Late. The novel, in which Rabbi Small solves the murder of a young girl, whose body is found in his car, become a success and received in 1964 Edgar Allan Poe Award from the Mystery Writers of America. Kemelman also received $35,000 for the movie rights. Lanigan's Rabbi, NBC's Mystery Movie series from 1977, was based on Kemelman's novels. Art Carney played Chief Paul Lanigan and Bruce Solomon was Rabbi David Small. Kemelman last Rabbi book, The Day the Rabbi Left Town was published in 1996. Kemelman died in 1996, at the age of 88, in Marblehead, Massachusetts.

David Small is the unconventional leader of the conservative Jewish congregation in the suburban Massachusetts town of Barnard's Crossing, Boston. He has wisdom and all the good qualities of a detective sharpened by the Talmudic training, or as he says, as a Talmudist, "I am not entirely without legal training." He is a devoted husband to his wife and he has two well behaving children. Usually Small is drawn into the events when he tries to help a friend in trouble. Other major characters include Hugh Lanigan, the Irish-Catholic police chief. The two friends often discuss religion over a cup of tea. Small ages realistically during the series. He has much troubles with his congregation and he is constantly at odds with its powerful members. In Small's first case a body of a young woman is found on the grounds of the Temple. Small's car has been seen at the Temple at the time of the murder. The woman has been strangled and evidence points to the Rabbi – her purse is found in his car. Small is not a serious suspect and eventually he proves himself innocent. He also becomes a friend of Hugh Lanigan, and ensures renewal of his contract. After several stories, Small takes a job as a college teacher in The Day the Rabbi Resigned (1992). Rabbi Small also visits Israel twice: first in Monday The Rabbi Took Off (1972), and then in One Fine Day the Rabbi Bought a Cross (1987).

In Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry (1966) Small's congregation believes that he has buried a suicide in the temple's cemetery. Sunday, the Rabbi Stayed Home (1969) deals with drugs and militants – one of Small's temple board members, a businessman, is rumored to be pushing drugs and there is a group of young people who question conservative values. The book also gives extensive details about the Passover celebration. Monday the Rabbi Took Off (1972) takes Rabbi David Small to Israel, where an international incident involves a young American student, Israeli intelligence, and a group of Arab terrorists.

In Tuesday the Rabbi Saw Red Small (1973) Small goes to teach a course on Jewish thought at a small community college, where the idyllic front is shattered by a bomb which goes off in the dean's office. Wednesday the Rabbi Got Wet (1976) brings on the scene a hurricane and pharmacy. Also a member Small's congregation, an invalid, dies a mysterious death. Small becomes fully involved with the crime case on page 257 of a 288-page book. The plot weaves together mystical religious sects, the different roles of mysticism in the Jewish and Christian faiths, and malpractice suits. "With us, however, faith in the Christian sense is almost meaningless, since God is by definition unknowable... Our religion is a code of ethical behavior." (from Wednesday the Rabbi Got Wet). Conversations with Rabbi Small (1981) dispenses with a murder mystery. It tells of a girl who appears at Small's cabin door, wanting to know if the Rabbi would convert her to Judaism. Rabbi Small offers her a personal lecture into the truths and the fables of the world's oldest religion.

Someday the Rabbi Will Leave (1985) deals with political corruption and dirty campaign tricks, blackmail, and a possible murder. There are also problems in Small's own temple. One Fine Day the Rabbi Bought a Cross (1987) was about Small's and Miriam's trip to the Holy Land. There Small faces the beliefs of a controversial fundamentalist Jewish group. An American tourist is killed, weapons are sold, and Small finds it difficult to get answers amidst Middle Eastern mysticism and intrigue. The Day the Rabbi Resigned (1992) continues Small's eternal battle with his fractious congregation at Barnard's Crossing. A drunk-driving accident is not an accident and now Small is really quitting. The Day the Rabbi Left Town (1996) depicts Small's situation after his new life. He has retired and accepted a teaching job at nearby Windermere College. This time Kemelman focuses more on the history, customs, and practices of Judaism than writing a mystery novel – the murder occurs late in the story.

For further reading: Mystery and Suspense Writers, vol. 2, ed. by Robin W. Winks (1998); St. James Guide to Crime & Mystery Writers, ed. by Jay P. Pederson (1996); Encyclopedia Mysteriosa by William L. DeAndrea (1994); The Ethnic Detective: Chester Himes, Harry Kemelman, Tony Hillerman by Peter Freese (1992); World Authors 1970-1975, ed. by John Wakeman (1980); Contemporary Authors 9-12, Ist revision (1974) - See also G.K. Chesterton's priest-detective Father Brown; Ellis Peters's series about Brother Cadfel, and Father Bob Koesler novels by William X. Kienzle.

Selected works:

  • Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, 1964
    - Perjantaina rabbi nukkui myöhään (suom. Seere Salminen, 1965)
    - TV series Lanigan's Rabbi / the pilot episode (1976), prod. Heyday Productions, Universal TV, dir. by Lou Antonio, teleplay Gordon Cotler, starring Stuart Margolin (Rabbi David Small), Art Carney (as Police Chief Paul Lanigan), Janis Paige, Janet Margolin, Lorraine Gary.
  • Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry, 1966
    - Lauantaina rabbi kärsi nälkää (suom. Seere Salminen, 1967)
  • The Nine Mile Walk, 1967
    - Film: Trece kilómetros bajo la lluvia (2003), prod. Baobab Films (Spain), dir. & sc. by Álvaro Brechner, starring Gary Piquer (as Nicky Welt), Alex O'Dogherty, Ruperto Ares.
  • Sunday, the Rabbi Stayed Home, 1969
  • Common Sense in Education, 1970
  • Monday The Rabbi Took Off, 1972
    - Rabbi lähti Israeliin (suom. Eero Mänttäri, 1973)
  • Tuesday the Rabbi Saw Red, 1973
    - Rabbi näki punaista (suom. Eero Mänttäri, 1975)
  • Wednesday the Rabbi Got Wet, 1976
  • Thursday the Rabbi Walked Out, 1978
  • Conversations with Rabbi Small, 1981
  • Someday the Rabbi Will Leave, 1985
  • One Fine Day the Rabbi Bought a Cross, 1987
  • The Day the Rabbi Resigned, 1992
  • That Day the Rabbi Left Town, 1996

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