If the kids are United….
I chanced upon ‘Emil and the Detectives’ on one of our family’s regular Thursday evening, post-swim visits to the local library. Its cheery, illustrated yellow cover managed to over-ride any anxiety I had over picking a book by an author I’d never previously encountered. In this case, the risk definitely paid off.
Erich Kastner’s classic tale is not the only story to focus almost exclusively on the adventures of children, but the evocation of powerlessness and panic of a child alone and in trouble in an unfamiliar city is compounded by Kastner’s silky, confidence trickster. It’s clear that in an adult world, without considerable proof, Emil’s accusations would not hold sway against a well-heeled, respectable-looking, eloquent man. In reality, what weight does the word of a child hold against that of an adult? This is a truth about the world that is rarely admitted, and I remember the shock this caused me when it dawned on me reading this very book.
Also, I was used to the Enid Blyton school of criminality. In her world, criminals are either swarthy, foreign, ex-con, rough, unwashed, but more often than not, gypsy. No wonder UKIP are on the rise! Blyton’s dirty racism aside, I found the plausibility of Kastner’s criminal to be deeply unsettling, because if criminals appear to be charming and polite, how on earth are you meant to spot them?
Like Enid Blyton’s adventure stories, in ‘Emil and the Detectives’, it’s the boys who get to see all the action. It’s not something I picked up on as a child, but then again, I don’t think you consider things like that when you’re young, you just suck it up on a subconscious level. When I read it to my daughter, we talked about why there are so few female characters in the book, and it led to an interesting discussion about gender stereotypes in books, tv and films.
That aside, ‘Emil and the Detectives’ is a fantastic tale of children joining forces, using cunning, organisation and ingenuity to take on the adults, to fight for justice and win, and It still feels thrillingly subversive for it.