Welcome to another edition of In The Spotlight. Some series don’t, perhaps, get as much attention in modern times as others; yet they still have an impact and feature memorable characters. Harry Kemelman wrote that sort of series about Rabbi David Small. At the time, the series was highly regarded (the first novel was an Edgar Award winner). We may not hear about these novels as much today, but Kemelman made important contributions to the genre. Let’s take a look at one of those stories today, and turn the spotlight on Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, the first in the twelve-book series.
Rabbi David Small serves a Jewish congregation of three hundred families in the town of Barnard’s Crossing, Massachusetts. As the novel begins, his contract with the congregation is up for renewal. For those not familiar with the way synagogues work, rabbis are not assigned to congregations in the way that, say, Catholic priests are. Instead, congregations, through their Boards of Directors, hire rabbis and renew (or choose not to renew) their contracts on a regular basis (often annually).
There is disagreement among the members of the Board about whether Rabbi Small is the best choice for the congregation. For one thing, he’s not a particularly impressive, imposing sort of cleric. He’s a scholar more than an orator, and not exactly a model of sartorial elegance. So some members of the board believe he doesn’t give a good public impression of the Jewish community. Others, though, are persuaded by Rabbi Small’s knowledge, patience and compassion. It’s an open question whether his contract will be renewed.
In the midst of this debate, the community faces a greater challenge. One night, Rabbi Small is at his office at the temple, looking through a new set of books he’s just gotten. So he’s on the premises when the body of Elspeth Bleech is left on the temple grounds. Very soon it’s established that she was strangled with a necklace she was wearing, and Chief of Police Hugh Lanigan and his team get started on the investigation.
The victim wasn’t a member of the congregation, so one very likely theory is that the temple grounds (being relatively dark and empty at that hour) made for a convenient site to leave the body. Still, Lanigan has to look into the possibility that one of the congregants was responsible for the killing, or at least knows something about it.
Then it comes out that Elspeth’s handbag has been discovered in the rabbi’s car. If Rabbi Small had nothing to do with her murder, how did it get there? When word gets around that Small might be guilty, some ugly gossip starts, and anti-Semitism starts rearing its proverbial head. Matters aren’t helped, either, when someone else is arrested, as it’s murmured that Small arranged that distraction to cover up for himself.
But there are other possibilities, and Lanigan and the town selectmen are determined not to allow bigotry to take over. Elspeth acted as nanny to Johnnie and Angelina Serafino, and there is every possibility that their father might have had another kind of interest in her. More complications arise as the police look more into her other relationships. As the case goes on, Lanigan and Small form a sort of friendship, and in their different ways, work together to find out the truth about Elspeth Bleech’s murder.
This is a whodunit, so there is a victim, several suspects, and the working through of clues, alibis and the like. Small also uses the critical thinking and questioning skills he has learned over the years as a Torah scholar. Those who study Torah and the commentaries associated with it do so by looking at different passages and discussing (often debating) what those passages mean, and how they might apply in a given situation. So Small is quite well equipped to work through the course of events and make sense of them.
Since Small is a rabbi, readers also get a sense of temple politics, life in a Conservative Jewish community of that era, and the role that the rabbi plays within that community. As Small himself says,
‘‘…I have no responsibility, or for that matter, no privilege, that every male member of my congregation over the age of thirteen does not have…I presumably differ from the average member of my congregation only in that I am supposed to have a greater knowledge of the Law and of our tradition. That is all.’’
For those (including Lanigan) accustomed to a different perception of the clergy, it’s a very unusual way of conceiving what clergy do.
Another, related, element in the novel is the relationship between the Jewish community and the larger community of Barnard’s Crossing. Most members of the larger community are not violently anti-Semitic; many don’t really have any prejudice. But there is uneasiness in the synagogue, especially as the murder investigation continues. The Board of Directors (and for the matter of that, everyone else) knows how very easily any underlying resentment of Jews can come to the surface and end up in real ugliness. And in fact, some of that ugliness actually does happen. The novel was written in 1964, but many Jews will tell you that that concern still resonates.
That said, though, at least with respect to that element in the novel, the characters in the novel are not unidimensional. There are sympathetic Gentile characters, and unsympathetic Jewish characters. And people from both communities want to quell any possibility of anti-Semitic violence.
The solution to the mystery is very sad, and Kemelman doesn’t gloss over the shock of the murder, the consequences for the community, and the loss of Elspeth Bleech. At the same time, the violence is mostly ‘off stage.’ And we get a sense that the community will recover.
Friday the Rabbi Slept Late is a traditional sort of whodunit that takes place in a distinctive New England town setting. It features an ‘inside look’ at Conservative Jewish beliefs and lifestyles, and introduces a rabbi sleuth who uses his critical thinking skills to good effect. But what’s your view? Have you read Friday the Rabbi Slept Late? If you have, what elements do you see in it?
Coming Up On In The Spotlight
Monday 28 September/Tuesday 29 September – Death’s Golden Whisper – R.J. Harlick
Monday 5 October/Tuesday 6 October – Havana Red – Leonardo Padura
Monday 12 October/Tuesday 13 October – Crossbones Yard – Kate Rhodes