Erich Kästner: Emil and the Detectives
Translated from the German by Eileen Hall
Illustrated by Walter Trier
Vintage Classics 2012
(English translation 1959; Emil und die Detektive was first published in 1929)
It’s wonderful that this slight novel, nearly ninety years old now, is still a delight and a joy to read. Firstly, it goes clean against most of the highly didactic juvenile fiction of the day: the moral, such as it is, is directed to the grown-ups and not the young:
‘So you don’t think there’s anything to be learnt from all that’s happened?’ said Aunt Martha. ‘Money should always be sent through the post!’ said Grandma, with a merry, tinkling laugh.
Secondly, the pace and all the details are perfect. Things are described, things happen, they lead on to the next bit of action and so on; the suspense is maintained but is never unbearable; and there are no tricksy denouements as pretty much all the clues have been clearly and carefully signposted. The protagonist is both polite and likeable but not without mischief, and thus easy to identify with. While this is ostensibly a boy’s story, the adult females are strong characters, and the one girl to appear is especially proactive. I defy anyone not to be utterly charmed by this tale, its humour and its evocation of what it is to be young.
Set in Berlin in the 1920s in the aftermath of the First World War the novel focuses on young Emil Tischbein. His mother works as a hairdresser to support herself and Emil, and to save on their meagre income she sends him to stay with relatives in Berlin. With him she entrusts a month’s worth of money to give to her own mother in Germany’s capital, with a bit more to pay for his upkeep for some of the school holidays. But on the train journey to Berlin he is offered some chocolate by Mr Gundleis, a suspect character in a bowler hat, and being a polite young lad he accepts it. He then awakes from a dream-filled stupor to find his money missing, along with Mr Gundleis!
The core of the book is about his unexpectedly finding young friends in Berlin — Gustav, The Professor, Little Tuesday, Traut and others — who team up to help Emil stalk the thief and entrap him. Along the way Emil’s lively and enterprising girl cousin Pony Hütchen becomes the messenger who liaises between her family and Emil and the Detectives, so that his Aunt and Grandma aren’t worried by his non-appearance. As was later to become a commonplace in children’s fiction (Enid Blyton’s Famous Five stories are good exemplars here) it is the children who prove to be more adept at detecting and apprehending villains than the grown-ups, who are only there at the end to wrap things up, marvel at the children’s ingenuity and, as likely as not, warn them against doing it again!
Emil’s story was inspired by Erich Kästner’s own upbringing: the author was brought up in Äußere Neustadt, Dresden, just like Emil who lives in an unidentified Neustadt (“New Town”) and his mother too was a hairdresser. In fact Kästner appears twice in the tale, not only as Emil Tischbein but also as Kästner the journalist, a job that Erich in fact had in Leipzig and in Berlin at this period. His awful experiences in the Great War led to his subsequent pacifism; because of his critical stance he became persona no grata with the Nazi regime, and his books (except for Emil and the Detectives, which was considered innocuous) were consigned to the bonfire in 1933. Luckily he survived the war, dying in 1974 in his seventy-fifth year.
Prominent amongst the several delights of this book are the original line illustrations by Walter Trier, with expanded captions written, probably, by the author himself. Their simplicity of style speaks to us of a departed innocence, one that was soon to be utterly dispersed by another bloody war, but it nevertheless encourages us to engage in the tale as if in an everlasting present, where wrongs are righted and all’s well with the world.