When I was a little kid, I recall wandering into the "grown up fiction" shelves at the Lewis A. Ray public library and being intrigued by the covers of the Harry Kemelman novels featuring Rabbi David Small. I never took a course in design or typography, but whomever came up with that remarkable font used for the titles is probably more responsible than anybody else for sparking any interest in the subject that I have. I was too young to actually read the books, of course. I didn't even know what a rabbi was yet, but I just loved staring at the lettering.
Many years later, my early '90s fascination with Columbo led me to look into that program's fellow series on The NBC Mystery Movie and was surprised to learn that the novels had spawned a short-lived adaptation of four TV movies in 1977 starring Bruce Solomon as Rabbi Small and Art Carney as Chief Paul Lanigan. They seem to have inverted the focus of the books onto Carney's character, the chief of police in a small Massachusetts town, but I never got to see them and so I'm not certain. I recall reading the entry and remembering those neat books with the wonderful lettering on the cover. Despite reading about these movies while sitting down in the largest research library in the southeast and being completely fascinated by everything to do with the NBC Mystery Movie, it still didn't occur to me to actually, you know, read the books.
So, something close to three decades after I first saw the darn things, I finally read three of them. I found an old book club omnibus of the fourth, fifth and sixth novels in the series at the Clarke County Library sale a couple of months ago and they were... cute. As you might expect from a property that attracted Art Carney's attention, they're pretty gentle, read-in-bed cozies where the murder is a puzzle with no broader ramifications and which leaves no major trauma in its wake, rather like Christie's Miss Marple books. Apart from The Late Show, which was filmed around the same time as the Lanigan's Rabbi TV movies, Carney rarely went in for the heavy stuff, and unsurprisingly, the novels are light to the point of being fluffy. Law & Order: Criminal Intent's fanbase, which shipped pounds and pounds of marshmallow cream to Universal and USA to protest Vincent D'Onofrio's ousting from the show, probably wouldn't enjoy a contemporary adaptation of these books.
I did enjoy them to some degree, particularly in contrast to finishing all of Raymond Chandler's novels recently. The focus is more on the rabbi's family life and congregation, and the strange synagogue politics that result from trying to satisfy Orthodox, Conservative, Reform and every other branch of modern Judaism in one community. The books employ an enormous cast of characters to fill the town of Barnard's Crossing with colleges, drug stores and a board of directors, I guess, at the temple. The books focus on all of these families and business partners, and their polite, loving disagreements. The murder is often a background element to resolving the light tensions between squabbling factions.
Rabbi Small fascinates me. He's unfailingly polite and curious, even when confronted with well-intentioned nonsense from sides as disparate as a "some of my best friends are Jews!" anti-Semitic professor or an "I do whatever my rebbe tells me!" Hassidic acolyte, and Kemelman did a really great job breathing life into the character. Interestingly, when reading Chandler, I could never hear a consistent voice for Marlowe. The narration sounded like David Janssen as Harry O sometimes and Humphrey Bogart others. When I read Rabbi Small, however, I invariably heard John Schuck, the character actor who played, among a million other things, Sgt. Enright in McMillan and Wife. See, all things come back to the NBC Mystery Movie.
Having said that, I was baffled by one point. The rabbi's schtick is that he solves the mystery by use of Talmudic reasoning, leading to his climactic party trick where he juggles all the evidence and all sides of the possibilities in a strange little sing-song voice, which Kemelman depicts with elo-o-ongating wo-o-ords in his monologue. I have no idea what on Earth that could sound like.
I really don't think these books are for everybody, but the only sincere letdown I found was the occasional cloying treatment of college-age radicals, whether the demonstrators in the fifth book or the Hassidic fellow in the sixth. They're a shade more sincere and believable than the Hollywood hippies of a period Jack Webb show, and I don't think you can damn with fainter praise than that. Otherwise, if you're looking for a break from hard-boiled detective fiction or don't mind something more interested in amusing you than challenging you, Kemelman's novels have aged reasonably well, and I'll certainly be keeping an eye open for others in the series.