Emil and the Detectives

Erich Kästner

Introduced by Michael Rosen
Illustrated by Walter Trier

Set in 1920s Berlin, this is a charming modern classic. With a preface by Michael Rosen and original illustrations by Walter Trier.

Published price: US$ 49.95


Emil and the Detectives

Originally published in 1929 and translated into 59 languages from the original German, Emil and the Detectives was a groundbreaking book, giving us a realistic portrayal of childhood friendships and the first child-detective. Its lovely humour and optimism ensure its continuing appeal. For Emil's grandmother, the moral of the story is 'Money should always be sent by money order.' For the reader, it is quite different – 'Never lose your trust in other people, and never give up!'

Production Details

Emil and the Detectives book

Introduction by Michael Rosen

Bound in cloth with a front board illustration by Walter Trier

200 pages with 17 black & white illustrations

Book size: 8" x 5¼"

Emil and the Detectives

'The pocket was empty! The money was gone!'

Young Emil travels by train to visit his aunt, carrying money that his mother has pinned to his pocket, but even before alighting in Berlin, the money is stolen. Mr Grundeis, the only other passenger in his compartment, is the likely culprit, and Emil immediately sets out after him, through the unfamiliar streets of the metropolis: 'Four million people lived in Berlin ... No one wants to know about other people's troubles'. Desperate, yet remarkably intrepid, Emil has a stroke of luck when he's joined in his hunt by Gustave and his neighbourhood gang and together the young detectives set about catching the thief.

This edition features a specially commissioned preface by former Children’s Laureate Michael Rosen, as well as an introduction by Walter de la Mare. The charming original illustrations by Walter Trier, now as fondly remembered as Kästner's delightful book, are complemented by a striped cloth cover and bright yellow endpapers.

'Only the one who becomes a grown-up and keeps on being a child is a human being.'

Michael Rosen's introduction

Investigating the First Child-Detective

Erich Kästner's Emil and the Detectives was first published in Germany in 1929 against a backdrop of historical and political upheaval. Children's Laureate Michael Rosen examines how such circumstances influenced Kästner's thinking, and his writing of this innovative novel.

Emil and the Detectives was a groundbreaking book in many ways. It is probably the first of the child-detective books, a genre taken up and adapted so successfully by Enid Blyton and, more recently, Anthony Horowitz and Charlie Higson. It is one of the first books for children that gives us a rounded, unpatronising picture of a child in a single-parent family of very little means.

It is also one of the first books for children which treats the city as a place of excitement and worth. It supports the actions of children working together for a common purpose without the guidance of adults, and through its representation of dreams as a site of anxiety it draws on an awareness of Freud. Then, as if all this weren't enough, by way of innovation, the book tells its story in two different ways. A conventional stand-alone narrative is told to us in the third person by a knowing narrator, whilst interleaved amongst it are single-page commentaries on people appearing in the main story. They are written as if they are the narrator's soliloquies, who is thinking aloud for our benefit.

In the original German, but not usually reproduced in translation, there is also an interesting sub-text running through the book in relation to language itself. Local urban speech, usually employed by writers to typify speakers as lower class and therefore stupid, incompetent or fatally flawed, is used in the book to support and strengthen the vigour and resourcefulness of the boys from Berlin who Emil meets.

Though most, if not all, of these features of the book have been visited many times since in fiction for children, it's worth bearing in mind that in 1929 they were extremely rare or absent. To combine them all in one book is really quite remarkable.

So what kind of person could have produced such a piece of literature, and what sort of era did he live through? Erich Kästner was born in 1899 in Dresden, a sizeable city famous for its traditional porcelain works. His father was a saddler but Kästner didn't follow him into the milieu of skilled craftsmanship, but took the route to college, teacher-training and a PhD in German literature.

This path into the arts was interrupted by an event that would affect Kästner's life and work from then on: the First World War. For those of us born into a time with no national conscription and no experience of huge battles or civilian casualties, it is not only difficult to imagine the intense training, the horror and devastation of the battles, but even harder to imagine the kind of intellectual effort and courage required to take a critical stance against the patriotic fervour and militaristic pride that supports the making of war. This is precisely what Kästner did; he became a pacifist and devoted his early years of writing to producing poetry and song lyrics that examined and mocked militarism.

The time between the end of the war and the writing of Emil was a period of massive upheaval in Germany. The experience of rapid industrialisation, extreme inequality and war produced a huge working-class movement that was deeply hostile to the status quo. A serious consequence of the First World War was a crippling reparations programme that Britain, France and the United States imposed on Germany, requiring huge amounts of money to be transferred from Germany to the allies for years ahead. Even so, in the political turmoil of those years, Germany created a society where there was universal suffrage for everyone over the age of twenty, proportional representation and strong regional government, and its provision of education, pensions and trade-union rights was unequalled.

Meanwhile, Berlin was going through a mini-renaissance, becoming a place of cultural and artistic innovation. It was in this context that the young Kästner was approached by the head of a Berlin publishing house, Edith Jacobsen, with the suggestion that he might write a detective novel for children.

It's not immediately clear why people with Kästner's views should be interested in children - at this stage of his life he wasn't a father - but it should be remembered that one of the legacies of romanticism in particular is the notion that children are the carriers of hope and an uncorrupted wisdom. After all, it isn't them who have conducted the wars or created the poverty, it was argued. In England the young William Wordsworth put forth the now familiar idea that 'the child is father of the man', and in Germany the Brothers Grimm gave great strength to the complementary idea that there was, as they implied, some kind of pure and long-lasting wisdom to be found in those human beings who were closest to nature: children and those who worked the land.

One of the reasons for the lasting popularity of Emil is that versions of these ideas have held sway, particularly in artistic circles, throughout the twentieth century.

One last word. It is not only the boys, their families and the material of their lives that are drawn with painstaking care in Emil, there is also Berlin itself. Just as other great writers for children have lavished attention on landscape and house interiors, here for the first time are loving descriptions of what Kästner's contemporaries called 'street-noise' (Strassenrausch). With all the optimism of the milieu that Kästner belonged to, we meet a Berlin where even the passing buses are exciting. The fact that this optimism was ill-founded for Kästner himself - something he came to realise only too well as he watched his own books being burnt - should be no reason to withhold or dampen that optimism as we share this book with children. Following Kästner, we can quite legitimately read with our children in the hope that the world may heal itself through the actions of its citizens co-operating with each other.

This is an edited version of Michael Rosen's preface to The Folio Society's edition of Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kästner.


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Review by anon on 25th Aug 2015

Text: Illustrations: Binding: Rating: 5/5

"I omitted to read this in my own childhood......post-war anti-Teutonicism prevailed into the 70s! What a pleasure it was though to read to my own child - a wonderful story, beautifully written by one..." [read more]

Review by anon on 22nd Apr 2014

Text: Illustrations: Binding: Rating: 5/5

"The binding design of this simple and delightful children's classic is just delightful! It reproduces the colour cover illustration of the first edition as an insert on the front board, and the stripe..." [read more]

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