Monday, November 14, 2011

From the Archives # 15: Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner

This is the second week of the German Literature Month challenge and for that we were supposed to read a crime novel.  I considered a lot of different choices, but decided on Emil and the Detectives for one simple reason.  That reason is that it is a book I haven’t read since forever and I really like Erich Kästner.

Emil and the Detectives is a pretty straightforward story.  Young Emil is being sent off to Berlin to visit relatives for a week long holiday.  He is taking the train and carrying money, which his mother instructs him to give to his grandmother when he arrives in Berlin at the Friedrich Straße and not to lose it on the way.
The train ride lasts a number of hours and Emil finds himself in a full compartment.  One of the women knows someone from Emil’s hometown and asks him to carry her regards to him when he returns home.  After a while, Emil finds he is in the compartment with only one other person, a man with a mustache and a bowler hat who introduces himself as Mr. Grundeis.  

Mr. Grundeis makes Emil feel very uncomfortable, and he must fight to stay awake because of that.  But eventually he succumbs, believing the money is safe, pinned to the inside of his jacket.  However, when he awakens, much to his horror, he finds the money is gone and sees Mr. Grundeis getting off the train at the Tiergarten station.  Emil quickly gathers his belongings together and follows him, sure that he in the person who stole his money.  

Emil follows Mr. Grundeis to a café where, while he is spying on him, he meets another boy named Gustav.  He explains the situation to Gustav, adding that he cannot call the police because he himself had committed the crime of drawing a red nose and mustache on the statue of the Grand Duke in his hometown of Neustadt.  Gustav offers to help Emil get his money back and soon produces 24 other children, all ready to help.  What follows is priceless. 

Since Emil already knows the identity of the person who stole his money, the novel isn’t a classic ‘whodunit’; it doesn’t involve any of the usual detection methods of finding a criminal.  What it does do is present a highly organized, well run effort on the part of the “detectives” in trapping and capturing the thief who stole Emil’s 140 Marks.  But don’t think this is a classic coming of age story, it isn’t.  It is just an adventure in the lives of these kids, and at the end, they go home unchanged, but satisfied.

Emil and the Detectives is considered to be the first children’s book featuring a child detective and it is Kästner’s best known and most loved children’s book, published continuously since 1928.  He hated the Nazis and they didn’t like him much.  All his books were burned on May 10, 1933, because they were considered to be contrary to the German spirit.  The only exception was Emil and the Detectives.  I guess the Nazis figured that this group of 24 detectives was too clever to renounce.  

What I really like about this book is that Kästner seems to have had a high regard for children, portraying them as clever, thoughtful individuals capable of rationally planning and carrying out a way of catching a thief, but still able to commit childish pranks such as Emil’s indiscretion with the statue of the Grand Duke.  But for the most part, Kästner expects his child characters to be uncorrupted and to act morally and they don’t disappoint.  

Even if you are not familiar with Emil and the Detectives, Kästner is a familiar writer to us.  In 1949 he wrote Das doppelte Lottchen.  Walt Disney found this story and produced the 1964 movie The Parent Trap with Hayley Mills and again in 1998 with Lindsay Lohan, based on it.  Emil and the Detectives was also made into a movie in 1964, but it apparently wasn’t very good.  

There are not many translations of Emil and the Detectives, and in fact, a new and better ones really needs to be done.  In one translation, Emil's last name Tischbein is translated as Tabletoe, which isn't even correct, it should be Tableleg - Avoid this translation at all costs!!   The English edition I read was published by Barnes and Noble and it was terrible, but Emil continued to be Emil Tischbein.  It did  completely anglicized the story, so expressions like topping or tophole are found and the Marks are turned into British Pounds.  Of course, it would be best to read it in the original German, which is wonderful, but not always possible. And don't overlook the wonderful illustrations by Walter Tier.  Though the translation may leave much to be desired, they always stick to the Tier illustrations.

This book is recommended for readers age 8 and up
This book was purchased for my personal library

This is book 2 of my German Literature Month challenge hosted by Lizzie's Literary Life and Beauty is a Sleeping Cat

Emil and the Detectives
Erich Kästner
Barnes and Noble
102 Pages


  1. I love your choice for this week. I recently thought that Kästner, just like Fallada, should be rediscovered. His children's books are as wonderful as those for grown-ups. Even in Germany they are not as widely read anymore but I saw they start to re-issue him as well.
    I always wonder if names should be translated. In this case, in which the choices are humurous, it would be better.

  2. Very nice to see this piece on Kaestner! A favorite of mine. But he is not easy to translate well -- he often seems to be simple -- his poems for example are often in a simple enough language -- but very hard to get across the humor and the cleverness in English. I do like your essay on "Emil..."

  3. What a fabulous idea to read Emil for the crime week! I loved, loved that one as a kid and also its sequel "Emil und die drei Zwillinge". I kept all of Kästner's books for my boys to read when they are older.

  4. Caroline, I agree, a nice rediscovery of Kästner like the one Fallada is experiencing would be great.

    Dorothy, I didn't think of the difficulties of translating humor. So many good translations of German books are out now, I hoped the same for Kästner.

    Rikki, I also though this was a good choice for crime week. Kästner is such a great writer, but really appreciated here in the US, I think.

  5. LOL, I read these books in Hebrew as a child. I completely forgot they existed. At this point I remember the title but have absolutely no clue what the books were about.

  6. This book was a childhood favorite of mine and I had forgotten it! I enjoyed revisiting it through your review.

  7. Fun choice of book.i haven't read any children detectives in years.

  8. Emil und die Detektive was one of the books we read in my third-year German class in high school. I kept most of my German textbooks - wonder if I still have this one in the basement somewhere....

  9. I'm from Indonesia and am happy to inform you that the book is translated in Bahasa Indonesia, the title becomes Emil dan Detektif-detektif Cilik, published in 1991. And oh, Emil's surname is kept, Tischbein!