Emil and the Detectives

Emil and the Detectives
Emil and the Three Twins

Erich Kästner

translated from the German
Red Fox 2001, 2002
A book review by Danny Yee © 2015 http://dannyreviews.com/
Teenager Emil Tischbein sets off on the train from his small town to Berlin, carrying one hundred and forty marks from his mother — a lot of money for a hairdresser in 1929 — to give to his grandmother. When he falls asleep it is stolen. He follows the thief through Berlin, but how can he keep on tracking him, let alone corner him and prove the money is his? Led by Gustav with the Horn and the Professor, the local children come to his aid.

With nicely sustained suspense, half a dozen memorable characters, some fun illustrations, and a self-deprecating humour, it's easy to see why Emil and the Detectives became a classic. It is pretty light-hearted by modern standards, with a feel-good ending and a hero who is carefully positioned as a loving and dutiful son with just the right amount of disregard for authority. (A mock introduction purports to explain how the novel came to be written, but an alternative explanation comes with its ending, in which Kästner himself appears.)

Emil and the Three Twins, in contrast, seems like a bit of a pot-boiler. There's hardly any tension or conflict at all in the first half, which is an idyll in which the key characters from Emil and the Detectives gather for a holiday in a Baltic coastal town and everyone has a good time. (Class distinctions strangely disappear, with Emil's grandmother casually hobnobbing it with the Professor's father, a magistrate.) Two different problems that arise in the second half, a stranding and an acrobat becoming too heavy, are fairly predictably resolved, which leaves the only real tension and uncertainty coming from Emil's changing family circumstances. And there's a tiny bit of philosophising about education, complete with quotes from Goethe. It is as if Kästner realised that a book with the same characters as his best-seller was a sure sell — or perhaps was restricting himself to topics safe for publication in 1933.

Note: The bibliographic information below is for current editions of these novels in English translation, but I read them in German, in a single volume published by Dressler. As a language learner I found Kästner a good choice, with simple and straightforward language. There's some idiom, which may or may not reflect actual teenage street slang in 1929, but that's mostly understandable from context.

February 2015

External links:
Emil and the Detectives
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Emil and the Three Twins
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- buy from Wordery
Related reviews:
- more German literature
- more children's literature
%T Emil and the Detectives
%Y Emil and the Detectives
%A Kästner, Erich
%M German
%I Red Fox
%D 2001 [1929]
%G ISBN-13 9780099413127
%P 224pp

%T Emil and the Three Twins
%Y Emil and the Detectives
%A Kästner, Erich
%M German
%I Red Fox
%D 2002 [1935]
%G ISBN-13 9780099433637
%P 304pp