On his splendid blog Martin Edwards writes occasionally about forgotten crime writers. I am not sure that Harry Kemelman has been forgotten exactly, but I don’t suppose he is read much these days. I was reminded of his immensely readable novels a few months ago by a friend who was undergoing a gruelling course of chemotherapy. She had read Kemelman’s books years ago and wanted to reread them as comfort reading. She didn’t really think that I’d have any, but I managed to turn up three. I hadn’t read them for years either. And then a fortnight ago browsing at the excellent bookstall run by Partners in Crime at St Hilda’s I saw a second-hand copy of one that I didn’t have and bought it on impulse. It was SATURDAY THE RABBI WENT HUNGRY, the second in the Rabbi Small mysteries, and I read it with much enjoyment. I’m going to seek out the ones I haven’t got.
Kemelman was not a hugely prolific writer, but he was a very successful one. There are eleven Rabbi Small novels, the first published in 1964 and the last in 1996, the year that Kemelman died, aged 88. He is also the author of some interesting short stories collected in the NINE MILE WALK.
The strength of his novels lies in their insight into character and motivation and in his evocation of small town American life, in particular his depiction of an Conservative Jewish community with Rabbi Small at its heart. The Rabbi is an engaging character, humane, perceptive – and stubborn. The mysteries are interesting, too, and are solved by some special bit of insight on the part of Small – sometimes springing from his rabbicinal learning.
Writers like Kemelman are a special inspiration to other late starters like myself. But would an author these days be allowed such long gaps between novels? Many writers are expected to churn one out every year or eighteen months. For some writers this is their natural rhythm – in fact Simenon used to write a Maigret novel in weeks – but for others, the quality suffers. I think this is a pity. Aren’t good things worth waiting for any more?