Wednesday, September 28, 2016

Tuesday Night Bloggers: Children as detectives

This is the last posting in this series of blogs about Children in Crime and as ever Kate Jackson is collecting links on her blog crossexaminingcrime. There have been some cracking submissions.

As for me, I decided to have a look at children as detectives. I thought about Roy Fuller's With My Little Eye but decided against it precisely because of what is in that brief analysis: it may be narrated by a teenager who is the detective but it is really a book for adults. Nothing wrong with that but it wasn't quite what I was looking for.

So I had a look at some of the Famous Five books, which are really adventure stories or thrillers for children. They are not as bad as some people make them out but they are not very good either. Incidentally I was delighted to see that the rather precious attempt to "update" the language of those books flopped miserably and the publishers have gone back (more or less) to the originals, which are once again being reprinted. It just goes to show that children are not as stupid as some adults think, something I never doubted.

Nothing for it, I decided, but to go back to the best of those children's detective stories, written for children and enjoyed by them for generations (even when they have grown up) and in many languages. I am talking about Erich Kästner's great book: Emil and the Detectives. Written and published in 1928 it is not, strictly speaking, a detective story but a thriller about a group of children stalking, pursuing and capturing a villain who had stolen Emil's money and who turns out to be a bank robber as well.

The book was illustrated by Walter Trier and those drawings have never been bettered. It remained in print since then not just in Germany but in many other countries and read by generations of children. The Nazis listed Erich Kästner as a decadent and burned all his books except for Emil as it was too popular. One would like to think that the Nazi thugs were terrified of the howls of outrage from their own children.

On a more tragic note, it was also the book that was most frequently found among the last treasured possessions of children who had been transported to the camps and sent off into those showers. When Kästner was told about that after the war, he burst into tears. Not much more one can do.

Erich Kästner was born in Dresden in 1899, spent some time in the army in First World War and after finishing his education moved first to Leipzig where he became a journalist until he was sacked for being too frivolous and occasionally near-pornographic. He moved to Berlin in 1927 but continued to contribute to Leipzig publications under various pseudonyms.
Kästner's years in Berlin, from 1927 until the end of the Weimar Republic in 1933, were his most productive. He published poems, newspaper columns, articles, and reviews in many of Berlin's important periodicals. He was  regular contributor to dailies such as the Berliner Tageblatt and the Vossische Zeitung, as well as to Die Weltbühne. Hans Sarkowicz and Franz Josef Görtz, the editors of his complete works (1998), list over 350 articles written between 1923 and 1933, but he must have written even more, since many texts are known to have been lost when Kästner's flat was burned down during a bombing raid in February 1944.
He was also a poet. Indeed, his first published work was poetry and he never stopped writing that (as what poet does?), producing a particularly moving poem on his return to the destroyed city of his childhood, Dresden, in 1945.

So, in 1928 he wrote Emil and the Detectives, the story of a boy of probably twelve or thirteen travelling from Neustadt to Berlin to stay with his uncle, aunt and grandmother as well as his cousin Pony, who turns out to be a great character. Emil's father is dead and his mother supports them through hairdressing. She and Emil are very close and support each other unobtrusively or so they think. In some ways, this reflects Kästner's own situation. His father was around and was a saddle maker but it was his mother he was close to (perhaps suffocatingly so, judging by the letters he wrote to her from Leipzig and Berlin). She had been a housemaid but in her thirties she trained to be a hairdresser to supplement the family income.

Thus the money Emil is taking to Berlin to give to his grandmother, who lives with one daughter but also receives help from another, as well as to spend is not a great deal but means much to the family. They are not well off. When the villainous Max Grundeis takes advantage of Emil falling asleep and steals the money it is a tragedy and Emil chases after him. Alone and a little frightened in the big city he meets Gustav who proclaims his presence with a honk on an automobile horn he carries everywhere, then Gustav's friends who immediately form themselves into a group of detectives, lay out a plan and keep Grundeis under observation until he goes to the bank the following morning where he is confronted by Emil. There are wonderful descriptions of Berlin, of the food people consume and of the conversations they have. But above all, there are the children who form a bond of loyalty immediately and who work out a series of quite remarkable plans under the guidance of the Professor who spends a good deal of time imitating his father, a judge.

Kästner stayed in Germany through the Nazi period, deciding that emigration was not for him. He was interrogated by the Gestapo several times but not arrested and managed to earn some living by publishing books in Switzerland and at home under various pseudonyms. In 1944 he left Berlin to escape the the final Soviet onslaught and his flat was bombed while he was in the country. After the war he settled in Munich but for one reason and another (the latter being alcohol consumption) he wrote less and was known as a children's writer for which he received a number of decorations including, in 1960, the most prestigious of all: the Hans Christian Medal for writing. He died in 1974 and while his career as a journalist, adult novelist (just one book) and poet may not be well known, his child characters live on in many countries, in many languages and for many generations.

Let me end on a happier note: part of the research consisted of me taking another look at Malcolm Saville's Lone Pine books. I was going to add a few paragraphs about them but have really run out of space. Nevertheless, I shall return to the Lone Pine books. They deserve reprinting and re-reading, also reading for the first time. There is a curious parallel between the characters of the very English Lone Pine books written by the very English and somewhat conservative Malcolm Saville and the very German children of Emil and the Detectives.


  1. Helen, this is a wonderful contribution! I've never read any of the Emil books and I appreciate the research did into the background.

  2. I found it very interesting and will try to track down his books. Thanks.

  3. for an interesting poem (in German)

    1. Very interesting and even my somewhat inadequate German can cope with it (mostly). Thank you.