Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kastner

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Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kastner

Buy Emil and the Detectives by Erich Kastner at Amazon.co.uk or Amazon.com

Category: Confident Readers
Rating: 4.5/5
Reviewer: Robert James
Reviewed by Robert James
Summary: A welcome reprint of a classic tale with strong characters, a clever plot, and an engaging setting.
Buy? Yes Borrow? Yes
Pages: 176 Date: August 2012
Publisher: Vintage Children's Classics
ISBN: 978-0099572848

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Emil Tischbein has been given a great responsibility - to deliver 140 marks to his grandmother, who he is going to stay with on holiday. Pleased at being trusted with so much money by his widowed mother, the young boy is determined to keep it safe. But when he falls asleep on the train, he wakes up to find both the money, and the only other passenger in his carriage, a man who introduced himself as Max Grundeis, gone! Unwilling to involve the police for fear of arrest himself, as he thinks that he's wanted for painting the nose of a local monument, Emil stumbles on a ragtag bunch of children who offer to help him track down Herr Grundeis and get the money back.

I first read Emil and the Detectives when I was at school, not much older than Emil myself - we're probably talking 20 years or so ago, now. I was intrigued to see how well it would have held up, and was delighted to find that it was still a very enjoyable book decades later.

Partly, I think, that's a sign of just how pleasurable Kastner's descriptions of Berlin are. The city, in the period between the two World Wars, is beautifully described, with the narrator of the story having a breezy style which really captures the excitement Emil feels at going to such a big place for the first time. However, that wouldn't be enough to get me enjoying the book without strong characters, and the book benefits from a host of them. It's noticeable that it's very male-dominated, but for all of that, the few females who do appear are well-portrayed. (In particular, Emil's tomboyish cousin Pony is wonderful!) Of the boys, my favourites, apart from Emil himself (who's a refreshing lead - mischievous but clearly devoted to his mother, and trying to do his best to make her proud) are The Professor and Tuesday. The other thing that shines through is that, in a time when children's books seem to be getting longer and longer in general, it's wonderful to be reminded of the power of a well-written shorter novel. In significantly less than 200 pages, Kastner gives us a compelling plot, some lovely characters, and a strong resolution. There's also some lovely illustrations, and a few extras - although these are rather slim pickings, to be honest, with a brief biography of Kastner the best of them.

All in all, this is a well-presented edition of a real classic, and I hope it helps it find the new audience it deserves. Now, where did I put my copy of Emil and the Three Twins?

If this has put young readers in the mood to discover more classics, two of my personal favourites are Charlotte's Web by E B White and Marianne Dreams by Catherine Storr.

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