Classic Children's Literature · RAL

Completed: Emil and the Detectives

Emil and the DetectivesEmil and the Detectives [Emil und die Detektive]
Erich Kästner
(1929, Germany)
Eileen Hall, translator
Walter Trier, illustrations

’Oh he’ll like Berlin, I’m sure of that,’ declared Mrs. Wirth from the depths of the wash-basin. ‘It’s just made of children. We went there the year before last for the skittle club outing. My word, but it’s a noisy place! Do you know—some of the streets were as light at night as during the day. And the traffic! My, what a lot of cars!’ (Chapter 1)

Emil and the Detectives starts out deceptively, Emil carrying the water jug and his mother washing her client’s hair—a scene of domestic tranquility, nothing of adventures in sight. Yet this opening chapter, slow by current standards, is our introduction to Emil and his character: he is obedient and polite, determined to do right by his mother. Which is why it is so important to Emil, when the one thing she warns him against happens, losing the money she gives him for his grandmother, that he make it right. Especially since he feels particularly wronged; he didn’t lose the money, it was stolen from him after he fell asleep on the train, despite all his precautions, both to protect the money and stay awake. It is from this point that the story takes off; Emil soon meets up with a group of boys who upon learning his story are only too happy to help him chase down and trap the thief. His cousin, Pony, the only girl in the story, makes occasional appearances with her new bike—which she is only too eager to show off—functioning as messenger or go-between with Emil’s adult relatives. We also see other aspects of Emil’s character–his determination to right a wrong, a bit of temper (he nearly fights the first boy he meets), and a hint of mischief: he believes he can’t go to the police, because he chalked a statue at home and believes the Berlin police will surely learn of it and accuse him of stealing the money!

I’m really not quite sure what I expected from this classic from 1920s Germany. Perhaps more of a mystery, but the detective work in this story is tailing a known suspect, not discovering “whodunit.” Of course, this makes for an exciting adventure, and the reader never really cares that we know the thief already or that we feel fairly assured of a positive outcome. After all, there are still plenty of twists and turns and we can’t be sure, exactly, how the boys will manager to confront the thief and reclaim Emil’s money.

A German writer, Kästner would some years after writing this children’s tale watch the Nazis burn many of his books, including the sequel Emil and the Three Twins. But they didn’t include Emil and the Detectives, in part because of of its popularity. It’s been adapted for several film versions, including multiple German versions and the 1964 Disney adaptation, as well as a UK stage production.

Emil and the Detectives Readalong April 2016 - 300px wide

As well as reading this for the readalong, it also counts as one of my titles for the Books in Translation Challenge 2016.

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8 thoughts on “Completed: Emil and the Detectives

  1. It is well worth to read more of Kästners work, who fell in disgrace to the third reich’s censors. Kästner is regarded an ethicist. He also was a friend of Erich Ohser (e.o.plauen) who died in a gestapo prison.

    1. Thanks for the information! I’m not sure how much I can find of Kästner translated into English–It was actually a little tricky to find a library copy of Emil and the Detectives for this readingalong, but I will keep the suggestion in mind.

  2. I neglected to mention Emil’s fear of apprehension for his ‘coloring’ crime! That was so funny! Though I can understand him feeling so badly about it, he really was such a great kid! I did feel Pony’s role was a bit more sexist than might be done now, but it was mostly appropriate for the time and place, I’m sure. I would like to read more of his books. I thoroughly enjoyed this one and plan to purchase for my grandchildren. Thanks for introducing me to the book and author, Amanda! (My review: http://books-n-music.blogspot.com/2016/04/emil-and-detectives-classic-childrens.html.)

    1. Thanks for reading along, Lynn! In some ways Pony seems more a token girl character (and one who must play by the rules at that) than really crucial to the story, but she does have a nice bit of spunk to her. Emil’s worry over his vandalism really is the concern of a good kid, not a juvinile delinquient, but I think it’s really understandable to anyone who tends to be that way.

  3. A really excellent review, Amanda ….. and thanks for giving some information about Kästner; it was very interesting to read more about him.

    Finally I finished a children’s book! I really loved this book and once again am thrilled by the read-along choice. The tone, at first, was unusual, but reminded me a little of Le Petit Nicolas books so I was able then to slide right into the story. I was glad it wasn’t a whodunnit because I felt that it made it more real. I did not think Pony’s role sexist at all. Even though she does mention a girl’s place is in the home, in her interactions with the boys, she ALWAYS has the upper hand (and it very charming how they treat her), and is often the one suggesting or agreeing with sensible plans and actions. The only thing that threw me is that she seemed to have the upper-hand with her parents as well — in fact, it appeared as though she controlled everything, or at least tried to. Dienstag was my favourite and so sweet. His duty to his comrades was truly heroic; even when he wanted to be part of the action, he sat at his post and waited patiently. I think I like him just a little more than Emil.

    Once again, great read-along. I’m already anticipating next year!

    1. I’m so happy you managed to find time to read this, as I know you wanted to. And happy at how much you enjoyed it. I think where I felt a little bit of by today’s standards sexism with Pony was what you mention, the “girl’s place is in the home,” which of course, would be expected for 1920s! And yes, I agree, Dienstag was great–what a wonderful sense of duty. I will check your review out next.

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