Saturday, September 22, 2012

The Case of the Starved Semite

Earlier this year I had the pleasure of meeting Rabbi David Small in Friday the Rabbi Slept Late. I found it a delight, with plenty of colourful characters, a pleasing detective figure, a fascinating Jewish backdrop, and an excellent mystery. And so, you had to figure that it was only a matter of time before I got around to the sequel: Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry.

After the events of the previous book, Rabbi David Small’s contract has been renewed and he is working in the community of Barnard’s Crossing. A major Jewish holiday, Yom Kippur (The Day of Atonement) falls on a Saturday this year, and so Rabbi Small prepares for the day-long religious service, which requires him to fast (hence the title). The entire Jewish community, it seems, is at the temple for most of the day.

But there is at least one exception: Isaac Hirsch. Although he identifies himself as a Jew, he doesn’t attend at the synagogue because he considers it a silly superstition. Hirsch, who once worked on the Manhattan Project, is an alcoholic who goes on a major bend once every few months. And unfortunately his latest drunken escapade is also his last. Hirsch gets drunk on Yom Kippur and drives his car into his garage, closing the door but leaving the car engine running. He is found dead in the garage of carbon monoxide poisoning. But was it really an accident, or was it a suicide? The insurance company would sure love the latter option, and they send an investigator to figure it out.

Meanwhile, Hirsch’s widow asks Rabbi Small to give him a Jewish burial, and he agrees. But instantly it causes a rift in the community. Wasn’t Hirsch’s death a suicide? If so, why is Rabbi Small giving him a Jewish burial instead of casting him aside to one side of the cemetery as the law dictates? Of course, it is Rabbi Small who finally proves to everyone’s satisfaction what truly happened on the night of Isaac Hirsch’s death…

Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry is a good sequel to the best-selling Edgar-winning first entry in the series. It felt a little smaller in scope, but I personally appreciated that. In the first book, Rabbi Small himself is implicated in the crime and must clear his name. Here, the “only thing” at stake seems to be a dead man’s reputation, but the Rabbi’s powerful sense of justice drive him to find the truth, and as readers we can appreciate why he would devote so much time and energy to the investigation. And when he proves to the insurance investigator what the true answer must be, the scene is an extraordinary one, using nothing but logic, following the example set by the first book…

It is really unfortunate that the second part of the answer really comes out of nowhere. There are small hints throughout the book to point to this conclusion, but Rabbi Small gets the biggest clue pages before the finale, and the other hints are so small by themselves that most of them really mean nothing by themselves. You do get all the clues—this book doesn’t cheat you in the least— but for my tastes, you get the most important clue far too close to the explanation of the solution.

As in the first book, the backdrop of Judaism is fascinating. Kemelman’s story, constructed as it is around Yom Kippur, gives him plenty of opportunities to explain to non-Jewish characters  (and, by extension, his readers) just what is going on, and this forms a major part of the book’s fascination for me. As in the first book, the community is divided by something the Rabbi does. Some people approve, others are shocked, and yet others find the Rabbi unreasonable and unwilling to make a compromise between the two sides.

People who are obsessed over political correctness are warned: the N-word is used on occasion, as well as the term “coloured”. Naturally, we find these terms repugnant today, but they are not used in a racist context at all—they were simply more acceptable in those days. In fact, one of the major characters, sympathetically portrayed, is heavily involved in the Civil Rights movement, and even asks Rabbi Small to join a demonstration in the South. Rabbi Small expresses support for the cause.

Overall, I really enjoyed Saturday the Rabbi Went Hungry. Like I said, the mystery seemed a lot smaller in scope than the first book with a more intimate and personal matter being investigated. I thought the first half of the mystery was stronger than the second half, relying on pure logic that every reader should be able to deduce for his or herself if they try hard enough. The book also has the decency not to cheat readers out of clues. I really liked the characters and found myself fascinated by the explanations on Judaism and Jewish traditions. It’s not quite as strong as Friday the Rabbi Slept Late but it’s still a terrific read.

1 comment:

  1. I listened to the whole series years ago, and just loved it. I've recently bought old print copies, and hope to read them all again. I learned so much about Jewish life and culture. He is not a wildly appealing character but he is so real, so true to himself. I like the relationship between him and the Catholic policeman.