In The Spotlight: Harry Kemelman’s Friday the Rabbi Slept Late

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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

32 Comments

Filed under Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, Harry Kemelman

32 responses to “In The Spotlight: Harry Kemelman’s Friday the Rabbi Slept Late

  1. I did read many of the Rabbi Small series, and enjoyed them. Last year I bought some old paperback copies of some of the first ones so I can try them again and see if I still enjoy them. I don’t remember much about the mystery elements but I definitely like learning what being a rabbi was like and learning more about a Jewish community.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the ones that you read, Tracy. I love it that you have some of the original paperbacks; there’s just something about that format, I must admit. You’re right, too, that the mystery aspect of these novels isn’t the only appeal. One really does learn a lot about life in a Conservative Jewish community of that time, and life as a rabbi.

  2. I haven’t read any of these in several years, Margot, but your review sums up most of what I remember about them. Rabbi Small is an engaging character, as is his wife, and, for that matter, so is Chief Lanigan, who will become a good friend of the rabbi. The books painted a good (and sometimes painfully accurate) description of an American Conservative Jewish congregation of the time, and a lot of the observations still ring true. I do have all the books, most languishing in my TBR pile; it’s probably time to dig them out again, as I see they’re mostly available now in Kindle editions.

    • They are, indeed, Les, and I’m happy to see that. I’m also glad that you brought up the character of Hugh Lanigan. As you say, he’s a well-drawn character whom we get to know better as the series goes on and he and Small develop their friendship. Miriam Small is a fine character, too, and well-developed. I like the fact that she’s her own person (i.e. not an appendage to her husband).

  3. An author and series I’ve never heard of much less read. It’s sad when good books disappear – one of the penalties of there being so many new books available every year, I suppose. Looking at Amazon it seems this series has just recently been re-issued on Kindle, so I’ll stick this one on the wishlist till the TBR is back under control…

    • It is sad, indeed, FictionFan, when a well-written series goes away. One one level I suppose it makes sense, but it does mean these books may not get the audiences they deserve. Hopefully, you’ll get to give it a go at some point; if you do, I hope you’ll like it.

  4. Col

    It does seem an interesting series, but I’ll probably pass. Thanks for spotlighting.

  5. I used to love these (I even saw the TV show in the 70s) – thanks Margot, haven’t thought about them in ages and I know I have a couple in the loft (well, almost certain …)

  6. Good choice, Margot. I recently reread the whole series and talked about it on a ‘Forgotten Authors’ panel at Crimefest. It is the picture of a whole community and the character of Rabbi Small that makes them so enjoyable, I think. You learn a lot about Judaism, too.

    • You really do, Christine, and not in a heavy-handed way. I do like the way Kemelman portrays the community, too. And I think Rabbi Small’s character is nicely done. Wish I’d been at your panel; I’l bet it was fascinating!

  7. I’ve never heard of Barnard’s Crossing, and I grew up in Massachusetts. Does the book mention where in the state it is?

    • Barnard’s Crossing is a fictitious place, Sue. Kemelman didn’t say which particular town is its inspiration, but it certainly feels authentic New England to me.

  8. I have not read this but your spotlight encourages me to do so. I love to learn even when I’m reading for entertainment and this is something I’d like to know more about. Thanks for pointing me in this direction!

    • I think it’s a really fine series, Jan. I agree completely with you about learning, even if you’re just reading for fun, and this series does balance those things quite nicely. I hope that if you do get to it, you’ll enjoy Kemelman’s work.

  9. One of my very favorite series. It portrays a religious man in a positive way. How rarely we now see that.

  10. I haven’t read it, but I’ve heard about this series. I like the way you described the story without giving away the grand finale, whodunit. I found your review interesting. 🙂

  11. I’ve always meant to read this series, and now you have really inspired me to get on with it. I always love settings within small distinct communities, so you can learn something about the way they work.

    • I do recommend this series on that score, Moira. And in my opinion, Kemelman tells the story of this particular community without taking away from the mystery plot itself.

  12. Margot: I greatly enjoyed reading the series. I learned so much about the practice of Conservative Jewish communities. As well, it was an early and still too infrequent example of an excellent sleuth who has a good and loving family life.

    • I like the series very much, too, Bill. It does give a solid look at Conservative Judaism of that era. And I couldn’t agree more about Rabbi Small and his family. It’s refreshing to read about a sleuth who isn’t eternally battling demons. The mysteries themselves are engaging, too, in my opinion.

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