Emil and the Detectives

I would have loved Emil and the Detectives when I was a kid of, say, seven or eight. (I liked it a lot now, too, but that’s probably the perfect age.) It was written in 1929 by Erich Kästner, and it has a clean, lively, neck-or-nothing style that takes everything unnecessary for granted but points out the kid’s-eye details: bad dreams, new suits, the unquestioning loyalty children give to other children.

Emil and the Detectives is the story of Emil Tischbein, who lives alone in Neustadt with his mother. He makes a trip alone on the train to visit his grandmother in Berlin, and on the way, “the man in the stiff hat” robs him of his hundred and forty marks — not a great sum to you, perhaps, but a fortune to Emil and his hardworking mother. Emil, who has enough spirit for fifty boys, gets off the train in a marvelously living Berlin, full of taxis, newspapermen, frying sausages, cafés, trams, florists, and banks, and follows the thief. He picks up the “detectives” along the way — a huge group of Berliner boys, all of whom get in on the act with enormous gusto — and they sort out the mystery with dash, grace, and a hugely satisfying ending.

The best parts of this book are the scenes of Berlin. This book of Kästner’s was the only one of his to escape censorship in Nazi Germany, and while I can’t fathom the logic of book-burners, it may have been because he portrayed Berlin so vibrantly. I also loved Emil’s girl-cousin, the brave and gallant Pony Hütchen, who brings coffee and rolls to the detectives on her bike. The book is full of adventure, and it’s something a kid would want to read over and over again. The book is wonderfully and humorously illustrated by Walter Trier, and translated (in the older version I read) by May Massee.

Note: I understand that there is a new translation out, in which some of the humorous German names are translated into English — Emil Tischbein into Emil Tabletoe, for instance, or Herr Grundeis into Mr. Groundsnow — and in which some of the kids’ phrases are updated to “Berlin parents are so cool!” and “You dork!” and things like that. Not sure what I think of that…

This entry was posted in Children's / YA Lit, Fiction, Mysteries. Bookmark the permalink.

8 Responses to Emil and the Detectives

  1. Christy says:

    I like to read books where they do well in capturing a place at a particular time, like a time capsule. What ended up happening with the author? Did he leave Germany?

    • Jenny says:

      Interesting question — I had to look it up. He was a pacifist and was opposed to the Nazi regime, but he did not leave Germany. He stuck it out and made it through the war. He didn’t like the postwar regime much better, as a pacifist, and died in 1974. It wasn’t until after that that his more serious work (i.e. non-children’s lit) was discovered.

  2. Sly Wit says:

    I definitely loved this as a kid, although I think our copy was in French (or designed for learning French maybe). It was illustrated with line drawings. I can’t remember any of the surnames, but I’m pretty sure it was Émile not Emil so I assume they changed all of them to a French version.

    • Jenny says:

      I don’t think I had ever read it, but the drawings looked familiar for some reason. I read that it has been translated into 59 languages!

  3. Jenny says:

    I firmly dislike the idea of awkwardly updating the language to make it sound more “modern”. Bleh. It is like when they put black and white movies into color after the fact.

    • Jenny says:

      Quite right. I think they think it will make it more appealing to kids, but half the appeal to kids is the strangeness of it, viz. the Melendys with their streetcars for a dime and their scrap drives and what have you.

  4. Isn’t this the one when he identifies the stolen money from the hole in it made by the pin with which the notes were in his jacket?

  5. I read this in German when I was little and absolutely adored it. Not sure I like the idea of the new translation though.

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