Monday, January 29, 2007

Why Are There So Few Rabbi Detectives?

An article by Lauren Winner in the Wall Street Journal back in December asks: Why are so many detective stories set in churches? The point is not so much having the murder mysteries in a church as having priests being the ones to solve them.

Among some of the mystery-solving priests mentioned in the article are:
  • G.K. Chesterton's Father Brown, which originated the genre
  • Margaret Scherf's Rev. Dr. Martin Buell
  • Charles Merrill Smith's pro-football-player-turned-minister C.P. Randollph
  • Victor L. Whitechurch's Vicar Westerham
  • Margaret Scherf's Father Buell
  • Isabelle Holland's Rev. Dr. Claire Aldington
  • Ralph McInerny's Father Dowling
  • Ellis Peters' Brother Cadfael
  • H.H. Holmes', David and Aimee Thurlo's and Carol Anne O'Marie's mystering solving nuns
That's a pretty impressive, if incomplete, list.
Now, about how many detective stories featuring rabbis can you recall?

I'm not a big reader of mysteries--at least not since I was a kid--but the only detective mysteries featuring rabbis that I can think of are:
Of course there are basic similarities between rabbis and priests when they turn to solving murders. By the very nature of their calling, there is no problem with their 'stumbling over dead bodies,' in spite of the fact that they are not members of the police. Also, both priests and rabbis are expected to have some sort of insight into human nature.

But Winner has a view of Christianity and detective stories that leaves rabbi-detectives and Judaism out in the cold.

Apparently, according to Winner, murders are more effective when set in churches than in synagogues
Perhaps liturgical forms of Christianity, which emphasize theological mystery, lend themselves to the consideration of criminal mystery. In any case, a candle-lit, stained-glass Episcopal church seems a more fitting setting for a mysterious deed than a bright and airy Baptist church.
I don't know Episcopal from Baptist, but this sounds about right. I remember there was a TV-sequel to Rosemary's Baby. At the beginning of the movie, Patty Duke Astin--playing Rosemary--is running away with her baby, and seeks refuge in a synagogue. Actually, it was a storefront shteibel. Then the forces of darkness catch up with her and the shul starts shaking and Rosemary pleads with Jews in the shteibel to pray. The prayers of the frightened men seem to have no effect and Rosemary runs into the street.

I recall thinking at the time that, when it comes to fighting demonic evil, the inside of a church must surely look more impressive than a shteibel. Then again, the Christian understanding of Holiness--as derived from a sense of mystery and awe--differs from the Jewish sense of Kedushah, as does their concept of the Satan.

On another point, both Christianity and Judaism now have ordained women--so how has that affected the clerical detective genre?
The entry of ordained women into real-life parish ministry has placed lots of women clerics in mysteries as well... For those who don't hold with women's ordination, it's still possible to find mystery novels starring ministers' wives
That may hold true for women ministers, but as far as I know, no one has yet to write a murder mystery featuring a female rabbi. On the other hand, we do have Ruby, the Rabbi's wife:
Ruby the Rabbi's wife is actually the rabbi's widow, as her husband, Stu, had been killed in what seemed a hit-and-run accident. She is a bouncy, lively extrovert, aged 46 when we first meet her, who eventually part-owns a deli called The Hot Bagel, together with the man who becomes her business partner, Milt Aboud...

The books are all told through her eyes and in her words. She admits to having a "firm build' (she's "a solid size fourteen") and auburn hair, with curls cut short, and green eyes. She has a son, Joshie, in his early twenties, and a three-legged golden retriever called Oy Vay. Later on she acquires a kitten too called Chutzpah. Although way past the first flush of youth, she certainly does not lack boy friends or admirers, including Kevin the incompetent Rabbi, and Paul Lundy, the police lieutenant.
I'm sure I've now given you a fairly vivid picture of what kind of character Ruby is.

In the end though, Winner decides that the source for all good mystery novels comes from the Christian Bible:
But perhaps the true logic of the ecclesiastical mystery comes from the moral, even theological, shape of mystery novels. Christian apologist J.I. Packer once observed that mysteries "would never have existed without the Christian gospel. Culturally, they are Christian fairy tales, with savior heroes and plots that end in what Tolkien called a eucatastrophe--whereby things come right after seeming to go irrevocably wrong . . . . The the archetype of all such stories."
Of course, the fact that J.I. Packer observed this doesn't necessarily make it so. Dr. Jerry McCoy, Professor of Philosophy & Religion, Eureka College, has written an article--The Detective and the Bible: Biblical Themes in Mystery Fiction--where he ties 2 genres of detective mysteries, the classical "Golden Age" and the hard-boiled detective, to Tanakh.

McCoy outlines the overall message of the Torah that the world is ordered and controlled by G_d and that a special covenant and relationship exists between G_d and Israel--a relationship that is disrupted when individuals or Israel as a whole violate that covenant and introduce disorder into the world. However:
whenever chaos erupted, however, steps could be taken to conquer it. Through the proper rituals and sacrifices, that which was unclean could be made clean again. The covenant could be renewed and the proper relationship with God could be reestablished. The order of the world could be renewed.
Parallel to this worldview of the Tanakh, is the point-of-view of the classical detective mystery.
There is a vision or worldview that is assumed and articulated in this form of mystery fiction, and it is a vision of the world as basically good and orderly, but occasionally threatened by chaos. In this view of the world, "society is by nature law-abiding, most people are truth-tellers, and crime is an aberration." When chaos erupts into this world - through murder, theft, or malicious pranks - it is the task of the detective to "solve" the case, discovering and identifying the criminal so that he or she may be punished and order is restored.
McCoy then looks at Proverbs, Job, and Ecclesiastes. Relying on 'scholarly' as opposed to Jewish sources, he sees Job as a book that "questions both the notion of an orderly world one can count on as well as the doctrine that good behavior will be rewarded while evil behavior will be punished." As for Ecclesiastes, McCoy quotes Walter Brueggemann when he writes:
While much in Ecclesiastes affirms the core testimony concerning God, it also asserts that "the whole of life at best is mystifying and enigmatic. At most, it is a bewilderment, a tribulation, and vanity. The good that God does by governing, judging, and giving is situated in a context of massive frustration, for none of it is coherent, reliable, or sense-making." For Ecclesiastes, humans "live in a world whose sense cannot be deciphered."
McCoy compares this world-view with Raymond Chandler's The Big Sleep. After a lengthy summary of the convoluted plot of the story, he comes to the conclusion that
this is quite a different ending from that of the "classical detective story." To be sure, we have some answers to some questions. We pretty much know who killed whom and why, but the world hasn't changed much. Furthermore, we, along with Marlowe, did not arrive at our answers through careful observation of clues and the use of "the little gray cells." What truth we think we know, we have more or less stumbled across. Marlowe's sense of morality and his knightly code are not destroyed but they are somewhat tainted, to say the least. He has come to realize that he has collaborated with institutional corruption. And, "If the detective, the client and society as a whole cannot claim innocence, what becomes of the formula W. H. Auden talks about: an 'innocent society in a state of grace,' and the detective, 'himself in a state of grace' who solves the crime so that innocence is reasserted?"
McCoy concludes that while both traditions of the detective novel, as derived in part from the worldview of the Tanakh, are in a state of tension with each other--both yet contribute to the continued attraction of mystery novels in general.
The one tradition appeals to our sense, our hope, that in the final analysis the world is orderly and just. This tradition keeps alive the vision and hope for justice.

On the other hand, even small children know that frequently, the world "just isn't fair." And we all know that sometimes "things just don't make sense." That may simply reflect our own lack of ability, but there it is. And yet, even when the world doesn't make sense, even when we are forced to compromise our own sense of honor, even when we wonder if it makes any difference in the long run, we still can carve out some oasis that we can call our own, hunker down, and hope that tomorrow it will make more sense.
Clerical detectives--whether Jewish or Christian--would natural tend to perpetuate the genre of the Golden Age of murder mysteries. After all, who better to restore balance and order to the world? That would explain why in her conclusion Winner doesn't even take the hard boiled detective story into account:
Indeed, there is something both comforting and hopeful about the morality that governs the mystery genre. Good and evil are clearly delineated. Evil is laid bare--it is undeniably real and active. And yet mystery novels don't often leave crimes unpunished, let alone unsolved. Evil is always found out, and overcome, by goodness. In a world often beset by violence, such stories are enough to restore one's faith.
So where does this leave the rabbi detective?

He is firmly rooted in the classical age of detective story. However, unlike the priest detective who draws on the sense of mystery in his own background, the classical rabbi detective not only sees order and morality in the world, but creates it on a daily basis on a textual level and brings it out and restores it on the human level as well.

But in today's chaotic world, while many Jews will find the comfort of order and morality elsewhere, there are those who will find that sense of order and morality in their learning.

For them, Rashi and his colleagues are always on the case.

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Anonymous said...

Something that might interest you is Lauren's involvement in The Voice. It is a retelling of the Scriptures and Lauren was the author of The Voice of Matthew. You can download the 1st chapter at


Sheyna said...

Although I'm a newcomer on the scene, I write a published Jewish fiction series that's a twist on the rabbi-detective mysteries. Not technically mysteries because there's no murder (yet), these are part mystery, part slice-of-life novels representing contemporary American Judaism.

The protagonist is Conservative Rabbi David Cohen, joined in the series by a Reform colleague and her Israeli-born secular husband, a Minneapolis cop. The second book welcomes the addition of a couple of Orthodox rabbis who are crucial to the plot.

Interwoven with the plot are textual references and deeper explorations of Torah and Jewish thought, bringing depth and perspective to his job, family, congregation and the larger story.

The first in the series, "Destined to Choose" was released in 2003. The second will come out this fall. You can read more, including the first chapter, at .