Welcome to Masters of Mystery Monday, where each week we feature a fictional detective and examine his or her unique contribution to the mystery genre. You are invited to challenge yourself with a short detective quiz, and see the answers to the previous week’s quiz.
Today we resume our “religious” detective series (a stark contrast to our hard-boiled detective last week) with:
Harry Kemelman’s Rabbi David Small
Some interesting facts about Harry Kemelman and the Rabbi Small series:
1. Kemelman was the son of Russian immigrants and grew up in Boston. He served as wage administrator of the U.S. Army in WWII. He was also well-educated, receiving a B.A. in English Literature (Boston U.) and an M.A. (Harvard). Besides his fiction writing he was also an English professor for a number of years.
2. The first in the series, Friday the Rabbi Slept Late (1964), received the Edgar Award for Best First Novel by the Mystery Writers of America. It originated from a non-fiction account of the building of his local temple (and all the personal dynamics and community politics involved), which he couldn’t get anyone interested in publishing. An editor suggested he add a detective story to it.
3. Kemelman said that his underlying purpose in writing the stories was to show both Jews and Gentiles what Judaism is about. He uses a tightly-knit Conservative Jewish community as his backdrop.
4. Kemelman wrote 12 Rabbi Small novels, the first 7 titled by day of the week starting with Friday (a day of Sabbath preparation). What did he do with the other 5 book titles, you ask? They each have the word “day” in their titles in some form. The books were published between 1964 and 1996.
Rabbi Small’s appeal:
1. Rabbi David Small is Talmudic trained, which gives him a logical and unusual turn of mind. The mysteries always hinge on some alternative Talmudic way of thinking about the problem.
2. Great side-kick: Irish Catholic Police Chief Hugh Lanigan. Opposites attract! Lots of opportunity for interesting religious discussions.
3. Rabbi Small has a strong ethical sense and is not easily intimidated, even when his own community is out to get him (which happens a lot; the politics of this congregation is fascinating). He doesn’t cater to their wishes if he doesn’t believe it’s the right thing to do.
4. Various issues get pulled into the novels: malpractice, drugs, Israeli agents, Arab terrorists, political corruption, religious fundamentalism. For those who enjoy some weighty issues woven into a fiction story, it’s a real thinking man’s series.
Beyond the books: television
Kemelman’s books enjoyed a brief stint as a television series in 1977, under the title Lanigan’s Rabbi on NBC. The show starred Art Carney as police chief Lanigan, and Bruce Solomon as Rabbi Small.
NBC’s Sunday Mystery Movie already featured a number of successful detective series: Columbo, McMillan and Wife, McCloud, and Quincy, M.E. When the popularity of Quincy necessitated a series move to a weekly slot, Lanigan’s Rabbi was put in its place. Unfortunately, it only lasted through a pilot and 4 subsequent episodes before it was cancelled.
Links for more info:
Want the answers to the last quiz?
- Nero Wolfe
- Scooby Doo
- San Francisco
- Washington, DC
- New York
Be your own “Master of Mystery”: take this week’s quiz!
1. Who was the first fictional detective?
- Sherlock Holmes
- C. Auguste Dupin
- Edgar Allan Poe
- Charlie Chan
2. Who was NOT given an honorary British title as a result of his/her writing?
- Dorothy Sayers
- Arthur Conan Doyle
- Agatha Christie
- William Wordsworth
3. Which of these detectives came from a small village?
- Mike Hammer
- Charlie Chan
- Miss Marple
4. True or False: Sherlock Holmes used a hound in some of the stories to pick up a scent trail.
Hope you’re getting a kick out of the quizzes. Have you read the Rabbi Small novels? Do you remember the television series? I’d love to hear from you.
Until next time,