Emil und die Detektive or Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner is a German children’s novel first published in 1929, and illustrated by Walter Trier. This was a book I first read sometime in primary school, and enjoyed very much. I always remembered the name but not much of the story, but then I found a Vintage Classics edition of this book a few years ago, bought it and read it again, and found it great fun. The edition I read is translated by Eileen Hall. I am not sure whether this is the same translation that I’d originally read, but one difference is that the currency in this one had been changed to pounds while I remember (though I don’t know how) that the original was definitely in marks. (The change again I think is pointless.)
This is basically the story of this young boy Emil who lives in Neustadt with his mother. His father who worked as a plumber is dead, and his mother works as a hairdresser to make ends meet. They are very poor and have to take great care of all that they have. Emil seems to be a good boy, who works hard at his lessons and also takes over the cooking when his mother is ill. But of course, he had to try very hard to be good. Now in this story Emil is taking a train journey to Berlin on his very own for the first time. His mother is sending him to his aunt’s with 140 marks to give to his grandma, and a further 20 marks for himself (including his fare and such). This is money that Mrs Tischbein has worked very hard to save.
Emil is very excited about taking the journey, and keeps the money very safely. But when he boards the train, he finds his fellow passenger, a man in a bowler hat, doesn’t seem to be a very nice man at all. He tries to keep his wits about him but at some point during the journey falls asleep. When he wakes up, the man is gone and so is Emil’s money. He gets off the train at a different station than his destination, and trails the man (not wanting to call the police for a certain reason–a rather funny one). On the way he meets a local boy Gustav who wants to help him and assembles his other friends, who become a whole band of ‘detectives’. Emil’s cousin Pony also joins them. Together the children trace the thief, and prove to the police that the man had stolen Emil’s money.
This is a fun adventure which is one of those kinds that anyone might have–all in the real world and no elements of magic or fantasy. That makes it all the more enjoyable as, for a child at least, it could well have been something they could have fallen into, within the realm of possibility, so to speak. Of course, it is the kind where the children’s parents are conveniently away so that they can do whatever it takes to catch the crooks. What I liked about the book is also how the children, Emil especially, use their wits and brains to catch the thief, and to give the required proof to the police. Emil’s brains and daring earn him a fitting reward at the end as well, besides some fame and praise from many quarters.
Source: Anonymous [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons
The illustrations by Walter Trier are more or less line drawings of a kind but I liked them very much. The frontispiece, however has a proper illustration of Emil (black and white in my edition) in his dark blue Sunday suit. What I also liked about the illustrations was that rather than just a one-line description of what the image is supposed to represent, many of them have a small paragraph describing the object or person, adding details not in the story or some fun observations, or even a word of caution.
Emil and the Detectives is described as Kästner’s first major success and the only one of his pre-1945 works to escape Nazi censorship (See wikipedia here). In fact, wiki even says, it is his best known work even now. He is however, also the author of Lottie and Lisa, the basis for the Parent Trap, though when talking about that most of us think about the movie and few are aware of the book. Emil and the Detectives, which has been translated into nearly sixty languages, also has a sequel, Emil and the Three Twins, published in 1934 where Emil and his friends have adventures on the Baltic shore.
Have you ever read Emil and the Detectives or any other books by Erich Kästner? What ones and how did you like them? Looking forward to hearing your thoughts!