Emil and the Detective
Erich Kastner

There are several books I read as a child that have locked themselves into my memory and Emil and the Detectives is one of them. I can still see myself sitting on my bed reading it obsessively, totally lost to the world outside my bedroom door. This memory doesn’t include the plot, or even that it the story is set in Germany before the Second World War. What I remembered was the thrill of the boys’ adventure and the feeling of empowerment and weight the characters had. Real people, not children, these boys weren’t simply doing boy things out of sight of adults. They were taking on the world with cleverness, confidence and courage. And they succeeded. Emil and the detectives solved the mystery and saved the day. What could be better than that? To a kid growing up in the suburbs  – where children and adults lived very separate lives and adventure was the neighbour’s ferret escaping or a power cut – the answer to that question was: Nothing.

The story itself is simple enough. Emil, unusually enough the only child of a single mother, is sent from his village to Berlin with money for his grandmother. Emil’s mother works as a seamstress and has scrimped for months to save this amount. Emil pins the precious money to the lining of his jacket for safety. Unfortunately,  that isn’t safe enough. On the train to Berlin, Emil meets the mysterious Mr Grundeis. When he wakes from a nap, both Mr Grundeis and the money are gone. This is the stuff of nightmares, his mother’s hard-earned savings gone, but it is made even worse by the fact that Emil is afraid to go to the police because of a prank he was involved in back in his village. He’s in a hopeless situation. And then he meets Gustav. Gustav rounds up twenty-four other local boys, otherwise known as the detectives. Together, Emil, Gustav and the detectives hunt down the thief, foil a bank robbery and bring Mr Grundeis to justice. Not bad for boys still in short pants.

Emil and the Detectives was a ground-breaking novel when it was published in 1929 (and the only one of Mr Kastner’s works the Nazis didn’t ban) and is still in print today – a children’s classic effortlessly crossing all the normal borders of time and space. Not many novels can make that claim.

Emil and the Detectives



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