How Emil and the Detectives (1929) by Erich Kästner came to my attention is something I’ve long forgotten. I don’t remember anyone ever mentioning it, yet it seems to have constantly been in print while also being made into a movie and adapted for the stage. And I didn’t even know if it qualified as a detective novel for younger readers. So the only thing to do was to read it myself.
What I’ve learned is this: I can safely say that Emil and the Detectives has far and away the youngest possible target market of all the books I’ve read and reviewed as part of this Minor Felonies undertaking. This isn’t necessarily to its detriment, since there’s an earnestness to its proceedings which is very charming and recalls (for me, at least) other, better books in a manner that I found quite pleasing. Such a youthful audience does become something of a problem when you realise just how damn short it is and how little plot is in evidence in that brevity — the last 30 of these 206 pages is presumably where The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King (2003) got the idea that quests must end with lots and lots and lots of scenes spelling out things which would have been better left unspelled, plus we get an early 10-page dream sequence that adds nothing to proceedings except some more words…to be honest, it would test the patience of any very young children encountering it, and so make it something of an odd experience.
It does, however, have a lot of charm, and charm goes a long way.
Young Emil Tischbein — we’re not told how young, but I reckon he’d be about 10 or 11 years old — is put on the strain to Berlin from provincial Neustadt to visit his grandmother and, when left alone in a carriage with a strange man, falls asleep (hence the dream sequence) and awakens to find that the money he was carrying has been stolen and the man has disappeared. Catching sight of the thief dismounting the train, Emil gives chase in the hope of reclaiming the money and, tracking his quarry to a cafe, is pondering his next move when he meets young Gustav. It’s with the appearance of Gustav the the plot proper kicks in, since Gustav is the vector of delivery for the Detectives of the title, and it’s when the ‘detectives’ are on the page that the most fun is to be had.
Our coterie of detectives, see, recall to me no less august a gathering than The Mob of Craig Rice’s Home Sweet Homicide (1944) in its depiction of a rowdy, enthusiastic, adventure-hungry, autonomous collective of young boys with time on their hands. The division of labour in Nicholas Square in chapter 9 had me grinning from ear to ear, especially as they cap off their super-secret organisation by shouting “Password Emil“…
…so loudly, it echoed round the square and made passers-by wonder what was going on.
Or see the later scene when, invited to help out with the surveillance of an hotel, too many children turn up only for the Professor to scold them for their lack of subtlety while the boys
…stood in a circle around him, listening kindly to the lecture but not looking in the least conscience-stricken.
Like the best juvenile fiction, this is hugely successful when is takes the time to makes its young protagonists feel like living, breathing young people, even if there is a necessary half-step away from strict realism. Like when our omniscient narrator assures us that Emil’s tears upon discovering the theft of his money are in no way related to him pricking his finger on a pin in his pocket:
He did not cry for such trifles. Why, a fortnight ago he ran into a lamppost so hard that he almost knocked it over. He still had the bruise on his forehead, and even that hadn’t made him cry.
Or see the casual, beautifully insightful and childlike reasoning in the following exchange:
“Well, it’s like this,” Emil explained. “Are your people well off?”
“I don’t really know. No one ever talks about money at home.”
“Then I expect you have plenty,” Emil said wisely.
The Professor thought for a moment, and then said, “I dare say you’re right.”