Emil and the Detectives

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Emil and the Detectives

by Erich Kästner

illustrated by Walter Trier

Age: 8+

Interests: crime, kid detectives, Berlin, Germany, adventure


published 1929

159 pp. – 18 chapters

Sequel: Emil and the Three Twins

Also by this author: The Flying Classroom, Lottie and Lisa, The 35th of May

Emil Fischbein takes the train to Berlin all by himself, but disaster strikes when the money he was carrying to his Grandma goes missing… obviously stolen by the man in the bowler hat as he slept on the train. Arriving in unfamiliar Berlin, Emil follows the man, and with the help of a well-organized gang of local boys and his bicycling cousin Pony, he sends a wanted bank robber to jail and receives a big reward.

As old as this book is, it simply zings along with a light tone and a fresh, open-faced style. Emil’s plight is very real, and readers will immediately feel for him. The boys he meets in the city change his fortunes dramatically, as a vast, militarily organized gang are instantly put at his service.

Emil and the Detectives was a huge success for the left-wing German writer, whose later books were burned by the Nazis. (Emil was too popular to be burned.) It pretty much spawned the entire child-detective genre of fiction, later propelled along by Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series, Nancy Drew/Hardy Boys et al. While the genre as a whole fell to formulaic pulp, Emil remains fresh and charming to the present day. The child characters are bursting with style and panache (especially Pony), the plot leans on action rather than moralizing, and the tone is kept light right to the last page, with Grandma’s pronouncement that the moral of the story is, “Never send cash – use traveler’s cheques!”

Even though I enjoyed it, I would recommend looking for an older English translation than the one I read (W. Martin, Overlook Press, 2007). The dialogue was modernized more than I would have liked, ie. having a boy in 1929 Berlin call someone “dude” is just kind of jarring.

There are many movie versions of this story (1931, 1935, 1954, 1964, 2001), none of which I’ve seen… yet.

Emil and the Detectives is a true classic and a fun, rip-roaring read.

“Emil is a wonder… the book had, and still has, the effect of making me feel part of Emil’s little gang of boys… Emil and the Detectives is a little masterpiece… Read it and you will be happy” – Maurice Sendak

(available at amazon.com)

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All writings posted here are © Kim Thompson, unless otherwise indicated. For all artwork on this site, copyright is retained by the artist.