Emil and the Detectives

Emil and the Detectives (German: Emil und die Detektive) is a 1929[1] novel for children set mainly in Berlin, by the German writer Erich Kästner and illustrated by Walter Trier. It was Kästner's first major success, the only one of his pre-1945 works to escape Nazi censorship, and remains his best-known work, and has been translated into at least 59 languages. The most unusual aspect of the novel, compared to existing children's literature at the time, was that it was realistically set in a contemporary Berlin peopled with some fairly rough characters, not in a sanitized fantasy world; also that it refrained from obvious moralizing, letting the characters' deeds speak for themselves. Emil was the name of Erich Kästner's father (Emil Kästner).

Plot summary

The story begins in Neustadt[note 1], a provincial German town which is the home to young schoolboy Emil Tischbein. His father is dead and his mother raises him alone while working as a hairdresser. She sends Emil to Berlin with 140 marks (a hairdresser's monthly salary then) to give to his grandmother and 20 marks for himself, sums that have taken some months to save from her modest earnings. On the way he is very careful not to lose the money and uses a needle to pin it to the lining of his jacket.

On the train to Berlin, Emil meets a mysterious man who introduces himself as Max Grundeis. This man gives Emil mysterious chocolate and Emil falls asleep. When he wakes up, the money and Max Grundeis are gone. Emil gets off the train in a different part of Berlin from where he intended. When he spots Max Grundeis, he follows him. Emil dares not call the police since the local policeman in Neustadt had seen him paint the nose of a local monument red, so he feels that he is "a kind of criminal" himself. However, a local boy named Gustav offers to help. Gustav assembles 24 local children who call themselves "the detectives".

After following Grundeis to a hotel and spying on him all night, Emil and the gang follow the thief to a bank, where he wants to exchange the money for smaller bills. One of the boy detectives follows him into the bank and tells the bank teller that the money is stolen. Emil comes in and tries to tell the bank teller his story. He proves that the money is his by describing the holes left by the needle he used to pin the bills in the lining of his jacket.

Herr Grundeis tries to run away, but Emil's new friends cling onto him until a police officer, alerted by Emil's cousin Pony Hütchen, arrives. Once arrested, Herr Grundeis is found out to be a member of a gang of bank robbers. Emil receives a bounty of 1000 marks for capturing Herr Grundeis. After everything is straightened out, Emil's grandmother says that the moral of the story is: "Never send cash – always use postal service."


In the 1934 sequel Emil and the Three Twins, Emil and the other characters have various amusing adventures on the Baltic shore, two years after the Berlin events of the original book. It is partly based on Kästner's own experience of an idyllic holiday in the same location during the summer of 1914, cut short by the outbreak of World War I, and described poignantly in his autobiography, "When I was a Little Boy".

The second book did not become as well known as the first, in large measure due to its writing being shortly followed by the rise of the Nazis to power, when publication of Kästner's books in Germany was forbidden and existing books were subject to Nazi book burnings (the first Emil book was considered too popular and too harmless, thus escaping the ban).


The story has been filmed several times. An early German version from 1931 featured a screenplay by the young Billy Wilder, with uncredited writing work by Emeric Pressburger and starring Rolf Wenkhaus as Emil. The film proved to be a commercial success and is widely considered to be the best film adaption.[2] There were subsequent versions filmed in 1935 (UK, a remake of the 1931 film), 1954 (Germany, again a remake of the 1931 film), 1964 (U.S., produced by Walt Disney Productions, and 2001 (Germany). There was also a 1952 British television series which condensed the story in three 35-minute episodes.

Red Earth Theatre produced the first adaptation for stage in the UK. Their production of Emil and the Detectives, co-produced with mac (Birmingham), toured England, September to November 2013. Adapted and directed by Wendy Rouse and Amanda Wilde, designed by Laura McEwen with creative stage text and pictograms designed by Dominic Mallin, lighting design by Alexandra Stafford and choreography by Ian Dolan. The ensemble cast was: John Afzal, Paula James and Dan Willis with stage management by Katie Bosomworth.

In December 2013, Carl Miller's adaptation opened in the National Theatre's main Olivier space, in a production directed by Bijan Sheibani and designed by Bunny Christie.


  1. Neustadt (German for new town or new city) is the name of many towns in various parts of Germany – however, Kästner does not seem to have meant any specific real location, but rather depict an archetypal "small town" contrasting with metropolitan Berlin.


  1. "Entstehungsgeschichte und Rezeption" (Origin and reception) (in German)
  2. Article at the Website of Federal Agency for Civic Education, quote: Gerhard Lamprechts früher Tonfilm gilt noch immer als die beste Adaption des beliebten Kinderromans von Erich Kästner.
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