‘Dated’ Books, Part Five: Emil and the Detectives

‘Dated’ doesn’t have to mean ‘painful to read’ – sometimes it can mean ‘charming and sweet and nostalgic’. Emil and the Detectives, written by Erich Kästner in 1929, is an example of a children’s adventure story that is old-fashioned in the best sense of the word. Young Emil (age unknown, but he seems to be about ten or eleven) encounters a suspicious bowler-hatted man during a journey to Berlin. While Emil is asleep in the train carriage, the man steals a large sum of money that Emil is meant to deliver to his grandmother. Emil doesn’t feel he can report it to the police – he’s already afraid that he’s going to be arrested because he chalked a red nose and black moustache on an important statue in his home town. No, Emil must track down the missing money himself in Berlin. It’s a daunting task for a country boy – but luckily he encounters Gustav and his gang of friends, who are eager to be part of the adventure.

'Emil and the Detectives' by Erich KästnerAh, the good old days – when rural mothers sent their young sons off on unaccompanied, four-hour train trips to an unfamiliar city, and city parents allowed their boys to roam the streets of Berlin in the middle of the night. Unfortunately, they were also the days when girls weren’t allowed to have adventures. Emil’s female cousin, Pony, would love to help, but all she can do is bring refreshments to the boy detectives. On the few occasions she gets to speak, she says things like “I wish I could stay! I’d make you some coffee. But I can’t, of course. Nice girls like me have to be in bed in good time” and “I’m just doing the washing up. Women’s work is never done”. I’d love to have seen Pony run down the thief on her bicycle or something. Still, the boys – Gustav with his motor horn, the bespectacled Professor, little Tuesday and the rest – are so full of energy, fun and ingenious plans that the story skips along. It’s also nice to see a boy character who cares for his mother in lots of practical ways and isn’t afraid to discuss this with his new friends (although Emil does threaten to punch anyone who calls him a mummy’s boy).

I do wonder what today’s young readers, accustomed to fast-paced modern adventure stories, would make of a book that begins with Mrs Wirth, the baker’s wife, having her hair shampooed by Emil’s mother. It takes a few chapters before anything remotely suspenseful or adventurous happens, although the action speeds up once Emil reaches Berlin. Young readers may also struggle with some of the dialogue, unless they’re familiar with Enid Blyton. The edition I borrowed from my library was a 1959 English translation (see photograph above – although I must emphasise that Sydney City Library does stock other, more recent, children’s books). Gustav says things like “Cheerio, Emil. Gosh, I’m looking forward to this. It’s going to be smashing!” and the stolen 120 marks is translated into “seven pounds” (which still won’t mean much to young readers). I think a modern translator might have done a better job of conveying the original German text, although I suppose it’s always difficult to translate slang.

The edition I read also included a rather poignant introduction by Walter de la Mare which says, “There is nothing in it that might not happen (in pretty much the same way as it does happen in the book) in London or Manchester or Glasgow tomorrow afternoon.” This may have been true when he wrote it in 1931, but it certainly wasn’t ten years later. By that time, Britain and Germany were at war; the cities of Berlin, London, Manchester and Glasgow were being bombed; and young Emil and his friends were of age and probably conscripted into the Nazi war machine. Meanwhile, the author, a pacifist, had been interrogated by the Gestapo and had his books burnt by the Nazis. His home in Berlin was destroyed by bombs, but he survived the war to write more books for children and adults, including an autobiography called When I Was A Little Boy. Emil and the Detectives was made into several films, the most recent in 2001 (in which, apparently, Pony had a bigger role to play, hooray!).

Thank you, Alex, for drawing my attention to this book in one of your comments a few months ago. I think I might have read it as a child, but I had forgotten almost everything about it, so I thoroughly enjoyed all the plot twists and jokes.

More ‘dated’ books:

1. Wigs on the Green by Nancy Mitford
2. The Charioteer by Mary Renault
3. The Friendly Young Ladies by Mary Renault
4. Police at the Funeral by Margery Allingham
5. Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner
6. The Wind in the Willows by Kenneth Grahame
7. Swallows and Amazons by Arthur Ransome
8. Kangaroo by D. H. Lawrence

10 thoughts on “‘Dated’ Books, Part Five: Emil and the Detectives”

  1. I am so glad you enjoyed Emil. It is one of my favorite childhood stories, even though the English translation at times leaves something to be desired. Kästner wrote so many wonderful stories, for both children and adults.

  2. OH WOW I LOVED THIS WHEN I WAS LITTLE, I haven’t even read your post about it yet, I might just go back and do that now. But yeah, IT IS AWESOME!

  3. Michelle, you may have started something; Sonya Hartnett’s new book The Children of the King is also set in 1930’s England featuring a country manor house and prior to the bombing of London, evacuated children.

    1. Hello, Ernie! I doubt I’ve had any influence at all on Sonya Hartnett, but I’ll be interested to read her new book. (Coincidentally, I’ve just started The Ghost’s Child.)

  4. I love Emil and the Detectives! When I was little, I watched the 2001 version in German because my friend’s dad is a German professor. Pony’s role is definitely a lot more satisfactory in the movie than in the book, which I discovered and read later. I’m so glad you mentioned it, because it’s an overlooked classic.

  5. I bought this and the sequel from my junior school Book Club when I was 8 or 9. I remember reading it and wondering a lot about the solo train journey and loss of money at the beginning. But it’s now so long since I read either of them that I don’t really remember much about the story, just that I enjoyed the books very much.

    Unfortunately, many of my early books got lost when my parents moved house and these are some I haven’t seen in over 25 years. I may have to see if I can find kindle versions and reread them.

    1. I think you’ll find this one a very enjoyable re-read! I forgot to mention the edition I read had lots of charming illustrations – not sure if they’d be included on a kindle version.

      1. There are probably some cheap used versions, but I’m at the stage of trying to avoid buying any more physical books. I never thought I’d get to the stage of “too many books”, but until I can tidy up a bit, I have to try and keep the numbers down somehow. And I can adjust the text size on the tablet!

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