September 14, 2014


The Rabbi Who Knew Too Much (Adam Rosen, September 4th, 2014, Los Angeles Review of Books)

Friday was an immediate success. It earned Kemelman -- who was 55 when it was published -- an Edgar Award, the most prestigious prize in mystery fiction. A 1975 interview in Publishers Weekly revealed that five million Rabbi Small mysteries had been printed, and the series had been "translated into almost every language except Russian, Chinese, and, naturally, the various Arabic languages." Modern estimates put the number of Rabbi Small books in print at seven million copies at their peak. By the time of his death in 1996, Kemelman had published 12 titles in the series.

Most Rabbi Small fans weren't actually Jewish. In a 1995 interview with The Jewish Exponent, Kemelman guessed that non-Jews made up 90 percent of his readership. There were a few explanations for this, according to Charles Ardai, founder of the hard-boiled publishing house Hard Case Crime. For one, mystery fans tend to be particularly receptive to new and exotic protagonists. Also, Kemelman could write a good play-fair mystery, the term for the classic thriller in which "the reader follows around the sleuth and tries to figure out the solution before the detective does," Ardai explains. Perhaps most importantly, Rabbi Small appeared during a spike in national interest in Jewish culture nurtured by Woody Allen and Philip Roth, among other identifiably Jewish entertainment heavyweights. The series "was fresh and new, and at the same time Jewish subjects were for the time being, in vogue," Ardai concludes.

Rabbi Small had all sorts of intriguing things to reveal to his audience. Consider the following exchange in Thursday the Rabbi Walked Out (1978). At this point, our Talmud-wielding protagonist is looking into the death of Ellsworth Jordon, an aristocratic and outspokenly anti-Semitic Barnard's Crossing resident. The rabbi's investigation brings him into contact with two of Jordon's yacht club friends, a selectman named Albert Megrim and a retired Episcopalian rector named Dr. Springhurst. In typical expository fashion, Rabbi Small explains the mindset of his people:

A thought crossed [Megrim's] mind, and he looked curiously at Rabbi Small. "I suppose from your point of view Jordon's death was punishment from on high for his attitude toward your kind."

"Oh no," said the rabbi quickly. "I'd hate to think so."

Megrim opened his eyes wide. "You would?"

"Naturally," said the rabbi. "Because the corollary would be that either any wicked person who was alive and prosperous was not really wicked or that God was unaware of his actions."

Dr. Springhurst chuckled. "Ah, then you believe as we do that the wicked are punished after death."

"No-o, we don't believe that either," said the rabbi. "That would mean depriving men of free will. We feel that virtue is its own reward, and evil carries its own punishment."

Kemelman's instructional approach was not accidental. He was deeply influenced by G. K. Chesterton's Father Brown series, and in multiple interviews throughout his life he praised Chesterton for educating readers about Catholic doctrine through his plucky, crime-solving priest. "I got more insight into Catholicism from reading Father Brown than I got in most of my studies in comparative religion," he told People magazine in a 1976 feature, which, in addition to exploring his "sneaky way of teaching Judaism," confirms the height of his contemporary pop culture relevance.

Additionally, because Kemelman was working within the domain of genre fiction, he had a unique window of opportunity. His readers, not expecting or wanting a dry academic tome, had no need to brace themselves for a "serious" work of comparative religion. Effectively disarmed, they allowed Rabbi Small -- Talmud teachings and all -- to enter their minds and occupy their nightstands.

Posted by at September 14, 2014 8:13 AM

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