‘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