Charlie Chan relies on Oriental inscrutability, Miss Marple on feminine intuition and Shaft on street savvy. But when Rabbi David Small is faced with solving a crime, he tracks down the perpetrator with the help of a curious weapon: Talmudic reasoning.
Rabbi Small, the creation of author Harry Kemelman, first appeared in Friday the Rabbi Slept Late in 1964. It became a best-seller, and Kemelman won the Edgar award from the Mystery Writers of America for the best first novel of the year. To date Small’s deductive powers have been tested in six novels, all with successive days of the week in their titles. They have been translated into nearly every major language except Russian, Chinese and Arabic, and there are over five million paperbacks in print.
The just-published sixth book, Wednesday the Rabbi Got Wet, follows the pattern of the others. The thin, pale, myopic Small solves a crime—the murder of an old man—while embroiled in an ethical dispute within his temple involving, among other things, the disposition of land it owns.
An Orthodox Jew himself, Kemelman, 67, invented the rabbi-sleuth in order to explain the Judaic experience in an entertaining way. “To think of the Rabbi Small books as nothing more than detective stories is wrong,” the author says. An avid fan of G. K. Chesterton’s crime-busting priest, Father Brown, Kemelman says, “I got more insight into Catholicism from reading Father Brown than I got in most of my studies in comparative religion.” Kemelman hopes the Rabbi Small novels do the same for his faith. (“The great majority of my readers are non-Jews,” he says. Their unfamiliarity with the subject was demonstrated when one customer asked for the first book by the title Freddy the Rabbit Slept Late.)
Born in Boston, Kemelman attended Boston University and did graduate work at Harvard before starting on a career of literary odd jobs in teaching and writing. In 1946 he decided to concentrate on his writing. An enthusiastic mystery reader as a child, he began churning out stories for Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine about an English professor and armchair detective named Nicky Welt.
Kemelman now takes about two years to finish a book. “I will go to extraordinary lengths to avoid working,” he confesses. His distractions include playing the flute, fixing things around the house and walking up to four miles a day. When he finally does settle down about 10 p.m., he says, “I spend most of my time pacing up and down, asking myself questions”—not unlike Rabbi Small’s method of solving a crime.
Kemelman and his wife, Anne, who have been married 40 years, live in a comfortable two-story, brown-shingled house in Marblehead, Mass. Their three children are grown. Marblehead is much like the New England town of Barnard’s Crossing in his novels. In fact, says Kemelman, four local rabbis confided to friends that they thought they were the model for David Small. “Actually, if there were a David Small I wouldn’t like him,” Kemelman says. “He tends to be cold and stuffy.”
Kemelman is running out of days for his titles: only Thursday is left. He is unperturbed. “There’s always May Day,” he says. “Thanksgiving, Columbus Day, Labor Day…”