Harry Kemelman was born in Boston, Massachusetts, in 1908.
After receiving a B.A. in English Literature from Boston University and an M.A. in English philology from Harvard, he taught at a number of schools before World War II. During the war, Kemelman worked as wage administrator for the United States Army Transportation Corps in Boston and later for the War Assets Administration. Following the war, he was a freelance writer and private businessman. In 1963 he became assistant professor of English at the Franklin Technical Institute in Boston. He was also an assistant professor at Boston State College in the 1960s.
His writing career began with short stories for Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine featuring New England college professor Nicky Welt, the first of which, "The Nine Mile Walk", is considered a classic.
The Rabbi Small series began in 1964 with the publication of Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, which became a huge bestseller, a difficult achievement for a religious mystery, and won Kemelman a 1965 Edgar Award for Best First Novel. The Rabbi Small books are not only mysteries, but also considerations of Conservative Judaism.
Kemelman also received $35,000 for the movie rights to Friday the Rabbi Slept Late, a made-for-TV adaptation of which was broadcast on NBC in 1976, starring Art Carney as Chief Lanigan and Stuart Margolin as Rabbi Small.Lanigan's Rabbi, shown as part of NBC's Mystery Movie series in January 1977, was based on the series. Art Carney played Chief Lanigan with Bruce Solomon as Rabbi Small.