by Harry Kemelman

(Crown, 1964)

Reviewed by Sue Feder

The first Rabbi David Small mystery, when initially published, was a revelation and a revolution: the first mainstream, contemporary mystery to deliberately and aggressively utilize Jewish law, philosophy, ethics, and institutions to tackle problems from the most mundane -- a dispute over damage to a car -- to the most serious -- murder. Kemelman portrays the Jewish community in all its pugnacious glory. Jewish traditions can be felt in every aspect of life:

Later, in his study, Rabbi Small was reciting his morning prayer, while in the kitchen Miriam was preparing his breakfast. When she heard his voice raised exultantly in the Shema...she began heating the water; when she heard the buzz-buzz of the Amidah, she started his eggs, cooking them until she heard him chant the Alenu....

Reading it thirty-five and more years on, as pure mystery it is a bit slender -- the murder of a young nanny doesn't take place until about a third of the way into the book, and although Rabbi Small is an early suspect, it is clear that even the police chief doesn't take the suspicions seriously. Almost all of the investigation takes place off-stage, until Rabbi Small becomes involved in the final ten pages. Modern readers coming to it for the first time may feel that the story exists to serve the points of Jewish law and tradition, rather than the other way around. Nevertheless, those points are fascinating, the good rabbi is a charmer, and Kemelman uses just enough subtle humor to make it all work.