Remembering Harry Kemelman and the Rabbi (by Arthur Vidro)

An aficionado of traditional mysteries, Arthur Vidro publishes the thrice-yearly journal Old-Time Detection, which explores mystery fiction of the past. He has special expertise in the works of Ellery Queen, and was one of the winners of EQMM’s 80th Anniversary Trivia Contest. In this post, he discusses a contemporary of Ellery Queen who started his writing career late in life, Harry Kemelman. Kemelman made his fiction debut in EQMM’s Department of First Stories, so we consider him one of our own!  —Janet Hutchings

Do you remember the first mystery book you bought new?  I remember mine.

During my growing-up years, a local thrift shop always allowed little me to take whatever used books I wanted, for free.  But their selection was limited.

So was my income.  I never received an allowance and was never strong enough to mow lawns or shovel much snow.  Money was tight.  Eventually I took my savings (from occasionally baby sitting for a neighbor) to Macy’s—they had a book department then—and bought Wednesday the Rabbi Got Wet by Harry Kemelman.

My first purchase of a new book.

I had become a Kemelman fan about two years earlier, when my cousin Howie was discarding items from his bookshelf.  He needed the space for his college textbooks.

Though I was still a kid, I was beginning to read adult books and was the only mystery reader in the family.  So Howie offered me his two mystery books—Friday the Rabbi Slept Late and Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry, both by Harry Kemelman.

I accepted the paperback books and read them.

That copy of Friday proudly proclaimed the book had won an Edgar award.  I had never heard of the Edgar awards.  Nor had I heard of Kemelman.

Harry Kemelman (born 1908) was a contemporary of the Ellery Queens (born 1905) and John Dickson Carr (born 1906).  But Kemelman was a late bloomer, his first book appearing when he was middle-aged.  He was still writing a full generation after the others had stopped.  His eleven best-selling murder mysteries starring Rabbi David Small began in 1964 and ended in 1996.

Kemelman entered the mystery world with his much praised and highly anthologized short story “The Nine Mile Walk,” which first appeared in the April 1947 issue of Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine.  That tale starred Nicky Welt, a professor of English language and literature at a small New England college.  While planning to show how a string of inferences can be totally logical but still not be true, Professor Welt breaks down a sentence handed to him—“a nine mile walk is no joke, especially in the rain”—and draws inference upon inference until, lo and behold, a crime is solved even before it is discovered.

All the Nicky Welt stories were collected in book form in 1967 as The Nine-Mile Walk: The Nicky Welt Stories of Harry Kemelman.  In his lengthy introduction to that collection, Kemelman explained how his original Welt tale in EQMM led to the creation of his most famous character, the murder-solving Rabbi David Small.

Turns out, wrote Kemelman, that shortly after EQMM published “The Nine Mile Walk,” several publishers approached him, all interested in seeing a Nicky Welt mystery novel.  Kemelman’s response, according to that introduction:

“Naturally, I was flattered, but at the same time I felt I had to refuse.  I felt that the classic tale of detection was essentially a short story—the primary interest on the problem, with character and setting emerging as adjuncts.”

Years later, Kemelman produced a novel he titled The Building of a Temple.  It focused on the sociological situation of the Jew in suburbia.  Kemelman sent the fiction manuscript around to various editors, all of whom praised it while declining to publish it.  It didn’t have a large enough potential sales value.

Eventually, however, one editor—not identified by Kemelman in his Nine Mile Walk introduction—who was a fan of the Nicky Welt stories suggested Kemelman incorporate a detective story into his novel of the Jewish suburban community.

Kemelman liked the idea.  He knew that the traditional function of a rabbi, as opposed to a priest or minister, is as a judge, an interpreter of the Law, rather than as a religious leader.  This could be demonstrated by getting a rabbi involved in a murder mystery and having him work his way out of it.  (Rabbi David Small himself was one of the chief suspects in Kemelman’s first published novel.)

The idea had extra appeal to Kemelman because it provided a solution to the problem he saw in writing a full-length mystery novel.  In Kemelman’s words in that lengthy introduction to The Nine Mile Walk collection:

“The murder would provide only one thread, albeit an important one, of a larger narrative.  That would be the story of the entire community in which the murder occurs and which affects everyone involved.”

The result was the bestselling series of mystery novels featuring Rabbi David Small.

I suspect the editor who made the helpful suggestion was Arthur Fields, a publishing executive who formed his own imprint in 1972.  Fields was co-dedicatee in The Nine Mile Walk and the sole dedicatee in Wednesday the Rabbi Got WetTuesday the Rabbi Saw Red was published under the Fields imprint, which soon disappeared when the publisher died.  In his final novel, Kemelman revealed a bit more, dedicating the book “in memory of Arthur C. Fields, who started me off, and Scott Meredith, who brought me along.”

Kemelman’s Friday the Rabbi Slept Late (1964) won an Edgar for Best First Novel.  It was a surprise best-seller.

His mom was especially proud—even though she couldn’t read the book.  At least not at first.

Here is a little tidbit that probably appears nowhere else on the Internet.  (It comes from the rear dust jacket of the first edition of Kemelman’s Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry.)

Harry Kemelman encountered only one frustration with his highly praised first novel.  Of the half-dozen translations of his book, none was in the only language his ninety-six-year-old mother reads: Yiddish.  All this time she has been carrying around her son’s novel backside front—where it shows his photograph.  Well, recently mother and son had their wish: the book is being serialized in a Yiddish newspaper, so now she can share the delight of thousands of readers.

Kemelman’s subsequent Rabbi novels were also hits and probably played especially well in Jewish suburbia (where I grew up).  The murder mystery was important, sure, but just as compelling were the other major plots of the books—would the Rabbi cave in to the temple’s board of directors and perform a marriage ceremony when one party was Jewish (and a rich benefactor of the temple) and the other party was Christian?  Would the board really fire him over it?  Will the board replace Rabbi Small with a younger, hipper, more gregarious (and less costly) newly ordained and upcoming rabbi who already has successfully substituted for him?

It’s true the murder mystery sometimes took a book seat to the other goings-on.  Heck, my favorite parts of the books were always the temple’s board meetings. Rabbi Small and the other characters in the New England town of Barnard’s Crossing aged at the same pace as their readers aged.  As the series progressed, the Rabbi and his wife, Miriam, went from young adults to late-middle age, and readers took in the births, growing up, and moving out of their two children.

Definitely an armchair detective, Rabbi Small always reached the solution via sound logic by exercising the talmudic realm of his little grey cells.  His input is often sought by Chief of Police Hugh Lanigan.  Of course, talmudic logic is hardly legal evidence, possibly by denying the truth some culprits might avoid punishment—but the Rabbi successfully thinks his way to the truth, as Professor Nicky Welt had done previously.

The Rabbi even made it to television. Starting in early 1977, “Lanigan’s Rabbi” was a monthly component in the prime time NBC Sunday Mystery Movie (taking its turn in the rotation with “Columbo,” “McCloud,” and “McMillan”).  Perhaps in a bid to gain audience size, the leading role was given to the Chief Lanigan character (played by Art Carney), while the Rabbi (played by Bruce Solomon) got second billing.  Janis Paige played Mrs. Lanigan, with Janet Margolin as Mrs. Small.  Only four episodes were produced.

While that series was on the air, I purchased that rabbi book at Macy’s.

In addition to those four episodes, the 1976 series pilot, based on Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, starred Stuart Margolin as Rabbi Small, teaming up with Carney’s Chief Lanigan.

In 1992, shortly after The Day the Rabbi Resigned was released, this reader wrote to Mr. Kemelman—the first time I ever wrote to an author—praising Kemelman’s body of work and thanking him for all the pleasure I had received from the books since I had begun reading them in the mid-1970s.

Kemelman wrote back.  At one point Kemelman and I discussed how computerization was leading to more errors creeping into published works.  As Kemelman put it:

In the old days when copy was set by linotype, publishers had proof-readers, and by the time galleys were sent me, there were only about half a dozen errors for me to correct.  In the page proof that followed, a single error was unusual.  Nowadays, when copy is done on word processors (sometimes I think by high-school dropouts), there are as many as ten or fifteen mistakes in the first dozen pages.

I am glad that you enjoyed the book and am highly appreciative of your kind offer to copy edit the next one.  I trust there will be a ‘next one.’  In fact, my contract with Random House calls for two more.  I am working on the next Rabbi book right now, but it takes me a couple of years to do one so don’t expect one in the immediate future.

All the best,

Harry Kemelman

There was indeed a “next one” — That Day the Rabbi Left Town, published in February 1996. 

Soon after that final book was published, I mailed Kemelman the April 1947 issue of EQMM, hoping he would sign it on the page where “The Nine Mile Walk” begins.  He kindly complied, 49 years after the story’s initial publication.

I do not know if Mr. Kemelman began work on the third Rabbi novel called for by his final book contract.  He died in December 1996 at age 88.

As for my cousin who placed those first two Rabbi books into my hands?  He became a rabbi himself.

A Harry Kemelman Checklist

Friday the Rabbi Slept Late (Crown, 1964; Hutchinson, 1965)

Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry (Crown, 1966; Hutchinson, 1967)

The Nine Mile Walk: The Nicky Welt Stories of Harry Kemelman (Putnam, 1967; Hutchinson, 1968)

Sunday the Rabbi Stayed Home (Putnam, 1969; Hutchinson, 1969)

Common Sense in Education (Crown, 1970: non-fiction)

Monday the Rabbi Took Off (Putnam, 1972; Hutchinson 1972)

Tuesday the Rabbi Saw Red (Fields, 1973; Hutchinson 1974)

Wednesday the Rabbi Got Wet (Morrow, 1976; Hutchinson, 1976)

Thursday the Rabbi Walked Out (Morrow, 1978; Hutchinson, 1979)

Conversations With Rabbi Small (Morrow, 1981: fiction but not a mystery)

Someday the Rabbi Will Leave (Morrow, 1985; Hutchinson, 1985)

One Fine Day the Rabbi Bought a Cross (Morrow, 1987; Century, 1988)

The Day the Rabbi Resigned (Fawcett, 1992; Severn House, 1992)

That Day the Rabbi Left Town (Fawcett, 1996; Severn House, 1997)

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6 Responses to Remembering Harry Kemelman and the Rabbi (by Arthur Vidro)

  1. Art Taylor says:

    So much appreciate this! The Rabbi Small novels were among the first “grown-up” novels I read—and always a joy to meet a fellow fan who loved them at a young age too.

  2. jeffbaker307 says:

    Wow! Thank you for this! I haven’t actually read any of the novels but I love “The Nine-Mile Walk!” And I remember when the TV show was on, I actually saw an ad for it on the TV at the airport when I was picking somebody up, but I never got to watch the show.

  3. Arthur,
    Great article! I remember seeing “Friday the Rabbi Slept Late” on my parent’s bookshelf as a kid and being intrigued by the title. Some years later (probably in high school), I read a few of the Rabbi books and really enjoyed them. I completely missed the Lanigan’s Rabbi series, as I was away at college without a television. I’m going to look and see if they are on the web anywhere.
    Thanks for that walk down memory lane.
    –Doug Harrell

  4. Arthur Vidro says:

    Thank you, Art and Jeff, for your kind words. I once made a list of my ten favorite short mystery stories, and “The Nine Mile Walk” came in about eighth.

  5. Pingback: The Rabbi's Harry Kemelman - Opening A Mystery

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