Literature / Emil and the Detectives

Emil und die Detektive is a German children's book by Erich Kästner, of The Parent Trap fame.

Plot: Twelve-year-old Emil, son of a poor Single Mother, is sent to Berlin for the first time in his life, to bring 140 marks (about a month's income of his mother) to his grandma, for financial support. But when he falls asleep on the train, a man who calls himself Grundeis steals the money from him. Fortunately he meets Gustav with the [signal] horn, who's the leader of a children's gang and willing to help him catch the guy.

The novel received a sequel, Emil and the Three Twins. It's been adapted for film, television and the stage, and some well-known creators have worked on the various movie versions; Billy Wilder wrote the screenplay for the 1931 film, while Disney produced an adaptation in 1964.


  • An Aesop: Parodied by the grandma: "Never send cash always use postal service."
  • The Artful Dodger: Gustav
  • Author Tract: There are many poor people in the world suffering. The world is unfair, And That's Terrible.
  • Chekhov's Gun: Emil used a pin to make the bank notes stick in his pocket. When "Grundeis" wants to exchange the three notes in a bank, Emil remembers Just in Time that the notes have pinholes.
  • Con Man: What "Grundeis" probably is.
  • Creator Cameo: Kästner later appears in the story to write an article about the boys. And also had a minor role in one movie.
  • Day of the Week Name: Dienstag (Tuesday)
  • Disappeared Dad: Emil's. Just like Erich Kästner's, by the way.
    • Not quite. Although Erich Kästner was much closer to his mother, his father was very much alive at the time the book was first published.
    • Emil is twelve years old in the story, the book was published in 1929, so it is quite likely that his father died in World War I.
  • Felony Misdemeanor: Emil participated in a prank in his hometown. For the record: They put an old hat on a monument of some famous guy, and Emil had to paint the monument's nose red, and add a moustache. After this, he has a bad conscience and becomes afraid of policemen. That's why he doesn't dare to tell the police.
  • Film of the Book: Several. The script of the 1931 film was written by a then-unknown Billy Wilder.
  • The Flapper: Pony Hütchen is a girl version. She wears a fringe haircut (="Pony" in German) which was the fashion at this time, and a little hat (=Hütchen). And she is quite outspoken (not to say: bratty), especially for her time, and challenges Emil to a fight. (Being a Nice Guy who Wouldn't Hit a Girl, and several pounds heavier than her, he declines of course.)
  • Free-Range Children: Probably nowadays not many people would send a boy to a metropolis to deliver a month's wage of money.
  • Getting Crap Past the Radar: Might be the case: "I thought there was someone playing hide-and-seek with himself!" Also later in the book: "Maybe he [=the villain] is looking under his bed to check whether there's someone playing Skat with himself."
  • I Have Many Names: Grundeis / Müller / Kießling.
  • Kid Detective: Emil and the titular - well, detectives.
  • Minor Crime Reveals Major Plot: After Grundeis is arrested for the theft, further investigation reveals him to be a bank robber.
  • Momma's Boy: Emil himself doesn't like it if people call him this.
  • Mustache Vandalism: Emil is reluctant to approach the police and instead uses the help of other children. The reason is that a few weeks earlier he painted a beard and mustache on a statue, so he's afraid the police won't believe him.
  • Narrative Profanity Filter: "And then, Petzold said a very bad word and left." It fits in with the moralistic tone of the book.
  • Nice Hat: "Grundeis" wears a bowler hat.
  • Only Known by Their Nickname: Pony Hütchen.
  • Person with the Clothing: The narration tends to refer to "Grundeis" as "der Mann im steifen Hut" ("the man in the stiff hat") since he's noticeably inconsistent about what his name is (see I Have Many Names above).
  • The Roaring '20s
  • Screw the Money, I Have Rules!: The boys get an offer to make advertising for several firms, after becoming famous, but decide against it.
  • Smart People Wear Glasses: The "professor", one of the boys.
  • Tall Tale: "Grundeis" makes fun of Emil, telling the unexperienced small-city-boy that people in Berlin sometimes leave their brain at the bank, to get a loan.