Friday 14 March 2014

Emil and the Detectives

Emil and the Detectives is a classic book written by German journalist, poet and thinker Erich Kästner. It was published in Germany in 1929, and then in English in 1931. It is a charming book, with a deserved enduring popularity. Indeed there is a current theatre production by the National Theatre in LondonThe National Theatre made a lovely short video piece about the historical context of Emil.

Emil Tischbein lives with his mother in a small town in rural Germany. His father died when he was five, and his mother supports them both with her hairdressing business, but it's a fairly marginal existence, and money is tight. Emil sets off alone on the train to visit family in Berlin with money to take to his grandmother. Emil is robbed on the train, and sets off after the villain when they arrive in Berlin. He enlists the help of a group of boys he meets on the street to help him get his money back and catch the thief, all without the help of the police of course.

The illustrations are the original ones
by Walter Trier
with odd social commentary
(I think by Kästner)

I found Emil and the Detectives a little slow to get going at first. But this gentle wonder grew on me with every page. It feels like a period piece. 1929 was a long time ago after all. When the boys are organising themselves to catch the villain one of them asks:

"Who's on the phone at home?"

Detective adventures were certainly all the more difficult in the pre-iphone age! I read a cute 1959 translation by Eileen Hall (to help bring translators out of the shadows) from Vintage Classics.

Emil and the Detectives was one of the first books to feature a child detective, although he was pipped to the post by Franklin W. Dixon's Hardy Boys in 1927 (see my review). And it has been a burgeoning genre ever since. The Famous Five. Nancy Drew. Encyclopaedia Brown. Artemis Fowl.

Erich Kästner is intriguing in himself too. He was one of the most important intellectuals in Berlin, a pacifist and who opposed the Nazis, and so attracted Nazi attention to his writings. His writings and books were burnt by the Nazis in May 1933. Kästner himself was present at the burnings. However, Emil and the Detectives was very popular, and even the Nazis couldn't find it offensive, so it was the only one of his writings to escape the pyre.

But Erich Kastner is fascinating for other reasons too. In 1931 he published the book The 35th of May, where the characters enter a fantasy world via a wardrobe- a full 19 years before CS Lewis published his The Lion, The Witch and The Wardrobe! It seems that there really is nothing new under the sun.


1 comment:

skiourophile said...

I hadn't realised that the Hardy Boys date all the way back to the 20s, though I knew Nancy Drew came from the same writer-stable in the 30s. All my pocket money used to go on these sort of books: you make me feel so nostalgic! (Having said that, I do not know if I have read Emil and the Detectives, so am going to find out.)