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.”
It’s difficult to tell, since I read this in translation, but in many ways this does feel like this text has had all the potential foreign charm homogenised out of it, with all money given in “pounds” (fair enough, I suppose) and Gustav saying things like “Gosh, I’m looking forward to this. It’s going to be smashing!”. There’s a distinct air of trying to Famous Five It Up a bit, which I might just be feeling on account of the era in which this was translated, and the veering of tone from whimsical to on-the-nose (discussions like the moral implications of re-stealing back something of yours that’s been stolen, and about how seven pounds is a lot of money if you don’t earn very much, feel both far older and far younger than this book is shooting) doesn’t sit easily on my brain. Yes, it could be that Eileen Hall has accurately captured Kästner’s writing tone, but when the real fun he’s having shines through (the caption under the picture of the bank in chapter 13, ‘Crowd Tactics’, for instance) he seems to express himself with a clarity that no translation could fudge. Until my German improves — and I’m preoccupied enough with my French at the moment — or at least until I read another translation of his book, since I understand that more than one has been published, I’ll never really know. But there are definite tonal lurches
The japes here are light and harmless enough for younger readers to revel in, and treated with a degree of equanimity by Emil’s grandmother that I’m not sure I’d be delighted to learn about were I sending my son into her care. From staking out the hotel to posing as a lift boy therein, and the eventual confrontation with our thief which actually reveals the one clever ploy at the heart of this whole endeavour — though my congratulations to the dickhead who titled the chapters and so even gives that away — it develops with maximum fun and minimal peril. There’s a weird bit of physical violence (not against one of our boys, I hasten to add) which again feels jarring on account of an uneven translation, and anyone looking to Emil’s cousin Pony to provide some sort of rubric for female empowerment is going to be bitterly, savagely chapfallen come the close of this, but let’s not apply too much 90 Years Later wokeness to what is, in essence, a bit of a jolly.
All told, then, while Emil himself is a model of viridity, he’s also a little too rectitudinous and preachy at times to really warm to, and the book as a whole wins through on spirit if not quite invention. For detection, you should certainly look elsewhere, but for the younger reader in your life who just wants something light and breezy with a stir of false peril, this has a lot to offer. I don’t even know if it’s one of those Children’s Classics that everyone is supposed to know about and its fans treat you like a weirdo if you’ve never read — y’know, like From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler (1967) by E.L. Konigsburg, which shares a similar tone of vapidity and unperilousness — but if it’s not, and if there’s a chance you might stumble across it at some point, you could do a lot worse.