Emil and the Detectives


This essay, “Children’s Detective Fiction and the ‘Perfect Crime’ of Adulthood” was written in the autumn of 1999 and published in 2001 in Mystery in Children’s Literature (Palgrave 2001), a book of essays I edited with Adrienne Gavin. The version published here will differ slightly from the book version so if you are going to cite it, use the citation method noted below. This version is published under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-ShareAlike 3.0 license, March 2007.

For citation: Routledge, Christopher. “Children’s Detective Fiction and the ‘Perfect Crime’ of Adulthood.” In Gavin, Adrienne and Christopher Routledge (eds.) Mystery in Children’s Literature: From the Rational to the Supernatural. Basingstoke: Palgrave, 2001. pp. 64-81.

Children’s Detective Fiction and the ‘Perfect Crime’ of Adulthood

by Christopher Routledge

As one of the most popular of literary types, detective fiction is also one of the most common forms of mystery in children’s literature. But the mysteries investigated in children’s detective fiction rarely, if ever, only deal with the immediate problem on which the formal plot is based. Perhaps even more than in its adult incarnation, the formal problem of “whodunit” in children’s detective fiction allows the investigation of other kinds of mystery; mysteries that become apparent during childhood itself and concerning issues such as identity, economic power, and social status. More specifically, detective fiction for children often explores the differences and tensions between adulthood and childhood.

Taking Erich Kaestner’s 1928 novel Emil and the Detectives as its primary text, this essay will consider the relationship between childhood and adulthood, and in particular, how, in detective fiction for children, the discourse of adulthood attempts to overwhelm and eradicate the discourse of childhood. This attempt, if successful, amounts to the “perfect crime” since it leaves behind no victim, and no blame can be attributed. In children’s literature, the interplay and frequent antagonism between children and adults may be seen as the interaction and competition between two distinct discourses, two distinct agendas. In children’s detective fiction, children and childhood are threatened not only by adult criminals, but also by the rational process of detection itself, which serves adult authority’s need for order and conformity.

Yet childhood can also be seen as a “radical” discourse: child detectives often pose a challenge to adult hierarchical structures. Like the archetypal “great detective,” whose success often rests on finding significance in things overlooked by the police, child detectives attend to things overlooked by, or invisible to, the adult gaze. A staple of children’s detective stories such as those in Enid Blyton’s Famous Five series, for example, is the child detective’s continuing interest in a problem or danger the adults have long since disregarded. This attention to details outside the adult gaze, and indeed the absence of childhood and children from adult discourses more generally, might actually assist the child detective in a radical interrogation of the mysteries of both adulthood and childhood.

The child detective, then, can be seen as operating in a unique position between the two discourses, combining childish playfulness and adult rational method to solve the mystery. Detective fiction, however, often unsettles the distinction between detectives and criminals. The character of Flambeau, in G. K. Chesterton’s detective stories, for example, first appears as an arch-criminal, and later becomes Father Brown’s friend and assistant, while the genius of Sherlock Holmes is mirrored in the intellectual abilities of his enemy Professor Moriarty. In children’s detective fiction, this distinction becomes still more uncertain, since the child detective must behave in rational, adult ways, while adult criminals and criminality are often presented as irrational and childish. The child-adult detective’s efforts to uncover and capture the adult-child criminal point still more decisively towards a tendency to expose, punish and finally remove childhood and childish behaviour from society at large.

In detective fiction for adults, the “perfect crime” of childhood’s “murder” by adulthood, has already been successfully attempted; children and childhood are almost entirely absent from the adult forms. Detectives as diverse as Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe and Agatha Christie’s Hercule Poirot, for example, rarely, if ever, mention the past; their childhoods, in particular, remain a mystery. Where children do appear in adult detective narratives they tend to be presented as falling into two types. They are either needful of sympathy, perhaps victims of crime or disease, or else they occupy a similar, marginal, space as the detective. Like the detective, they are told lies, denied access to certain things, and their opinions are ignored, although, interestingly, less often by the detective than by other adults.

Lawrence Block’s A Walk Among the Tombstones (1994) is unusual in this respect in that it contains children of both the “requiring-sympathy” and “marginalized-detective” types. One child character, for example, is kidnapped and mutilated before she can be rescued by private detective Matt Scudder. More interesting for us here, however, is a street kid called TJ, who spends most of the novel trying to convince Scudder that he too can operate as a detective. TJ is proud of his ability to remain invisible in the face of danger:

“I couldn’t [call right away], man. I had to follow the dude.”

“You followed him?”

“What you think I do, run away when I seen him comin’? I don’t walk arm in arm with the man, but he walk out an’ I give him a minute an’ I slip out after him.”

“That’s dangerous, TJ. The man’s a killer.”

Man, am I supposed to be impressed? I’m on the Deuce ’bout every day of my life. Can’t walk down the street without you’re followin’ some killer or other.” (249)

The ability to be inconspicuous makes TJ a useful assistant for Matt Scudder; as a child TJ is better able than Scudder to do things such as follow a criminal without arousing suspicion.

Rather than playing a secondary role, like TJ in Block’s novel, in children’s detective fiction child detectives are usually at the centre of the narrative. In addition, child detectives must frequently compete with adult sleuths or the police in solving mysteries. In Anthony Horowitz’s The Falcon’s Malteser (1986), for example, the thirteen-year-old brother of Herbert Simple, aka Tim Diamond, an extraordinarily incompetent adult private eye, manages to solve the mystery while his older brother is in custody on suspicion of murder. The child detective in this case at first competes with his brother and later with the police in solving the crime. Rather than playing a subordinate role to the adult processes of law, justice and detection, child detectives work hard to show that they, too, have a contribution to make. For Nicolas Simple, aka Nicky Diamond, it is the fact that he is a child that allows him to pursue the case, since he is too young to be locked up like his brother.

In children’s detective fiction the exclusion or elimination of childhood is more subtly attempted than in detective fiction for adults, since it is very often perpetrated by the child at its centre who, in order to find success as a detective, must behave in adult ways. In Horowitz’s clever parody of the American hard-boiled detective novel, for example, the child detective Nicky Diamond takes more physical punishment than Sam Spade in the Dashiell Hammett novel on which The Falcon’s Malteser bases its name. In fact the young sleuth behaves so much like an adult that Horowitz places comic reminders that he is a child:

This was the perfume hall. They stocked all the perfumes in the world – and you could smell them all at once.

“Do you want to try this one?”

A pretty girl leaned over the counter, holding a bottle of aftershave towards me. I shook my head. She had a nice face. But she was a couple of years early. (159)

A little later, Nicky is chased into the Christmas grotto in Selfridges, where he is forced to sit on Father Christmas’s knee. The full extent of this disjuncture between Nicky’s childishness and his adult role becomes clear when the gunman who is chasing him shoots Father Christmas dead. Nicky struggles to be accepted as an adult, and it is achieving such acceptance, and the rejection or “murder” of childhood it implies, that may be considered the real goal of the child detective.

Emil and the Detectives is usually considered to be the first children’s book featuring a child detective. It tells the story of Emil Tischbein, a boy who travels alone to Berlin to visit relatives, and is robbed while sleeping on the train. Knowing the police will not believe him, and afraid of being arrested himself, Emil sets out to apprehend the thief, a “man in a bowler hat,” and recover his money. Although the story is one of crime and detection, Emil, and the friends he makes on the streets of the city, do not have to detect the identity of a criminal. The criminal, Mr Grundeis, is known to them from the start, and instead their detection involves following, and finally entrapping, the thief.

While such detection requires little in the way of ratiocination – that is, the observation and elimination of possible clues – it does involve organization, planning, and a reasoned understanding of the world. As such, the “mystery” Emil and his friends investigate is to do with the world itself, and the most effective way of understanding and explaining events in it. The type of detection practised by Emil and the other “detectives” is that which allows for the most profound examination of the world and its mysteries since it combines theorizing with a testing of those theories on reality. Rational detective method alone may solve specific puzzles or mysteries, but it depends on particular theories about reality always holding true. The combination of rational method and physical engagement with the world in Emil’s detection allows prior, theoretical knowledge to be tested against reality and revised when it is found wanting. Emil’s initial distrust of strangers, for example, turns out to demand complex revision; he discovers that while Mr Grundeis is not to be trusted, other strangers offer him kindness and support.

Besides telling the story of Emil’s capture of Mr Grundeis, then, Kaestner’s novel also relates Emil’s detecting of the world, and his first taste of adulthood. The mystery of what lies beyond his home in the town of Neustadt makes Emil cautious and uncertain at the novel’s opening; by its end, that mystery has been solved through the rational and physical confrontation of his fears. Yet he does not “grow up” in the novel; as Walter de la Mare points out in his introduction to the 1959 English translation, Emil is as much a child at the end of the novel as he is at the beginning. Rather, Emil and his detectives bring to their rational pursuit of the thief a childish enthusiasm and vigour that spills over, at the end of the story, into a chaotic celebration party.

It is the ability of child detectives to go unnoticed by the adults around them that is perhaps their most important asset when solving mysteries. For readers at the start of the twenty-first century, perhaps one of the strangest features of Kaestner’s novel is its description of large groups of children wandering freely about the streets of Berlin. Emil and his friends seem to be passed over by adults as insignificant; they are not thought capable of posing a threat. In this respect, detective fiction for children, like detective fiction in general, describes, legitimizes, even privileges marginal existences. While the actions of individual detectives often may be seen as affirming the validity of conservative or bourgeois ideologies, in general detectives are also marginal figures, whose status as outsiders in relation to the society in which the crime takes place, assists them in their detecting.

The issue of marginality, and the need to reassess the relationships between discourses is also problematic for the status of children’s detective fiction as a genre. Children’s literature itself has, until comparatively recently, been considered a marginal area of study for scholars of literature. Peter Hunt makes the unhappy claim that:

Children’s books are rarely acknowledged by the literary establishment. [They are] invisible in the literary worlds in much the same way as women writers have been – and still are – invisible in the eighteenth-century novel. (7)

This exclusion of children’s books from adult academic literary discourse may be seen as analogous to the exclusion of childhood from the discourse of adulthood in children’s detective fiction. The relatively recent and continuing reassessment of the place of children’s literature in the academy, like similar reconsideration of the eighteenth-century women writers Hunt mentions, also provokes reassessments of the writers, works and genres that have so far dominated literary studies. The child detective, in a similar way, is able to interrogate adulthood and childhood more effectively by observing them from a new perspective.

In what follows, the conflict between the discourses of adulthood and childhood will be explored in more detail, in relation to detective fiction as a literary type, and especially in its manifestation for children. In particular, Emil and the Detectives provides examples both of attempts by adulthood to suppress or eradicate the discourse of childhood, and the ways in which childhood itself is complicit in its own eradication. It is this collaboration of the victim with the perpetrator that makes the crime perfect. Kaestner’s story reveals the importance of the child-detective’s position in between adulthood and childhood. Success for Emil depends not on his remaining bound to one discourse or the other but in shifting between them; his success as a detective depends on his ability to behave in rational “adult” ways, while retaining his “childish” qualities of imagination and unworldliness.

Before going on to discuss the ways in which childhood and adulthood confront one another in children’s detective fiction, it is worth considering briefly the function of marginality as a tool for solving mysteries in detective fiction generally. An indication of how central the figure of the marginal detective is in the structure of detective stories can be seen in the example of two very different adult detectives, Hercule Poirot and Philip Marlowe.

While Poirot participates in middle-class social events, and helps to retain order in them, his marginal status is signalled by his foreignness and, particularly significant in England, perhaps, his self-confessed status as an intellectual. Poirot’s Belgian nationality, combined with what – despite his reputation as a sleuth – are seen by criminals as his intellectual pretensions, render him unworthy of consideration by wrongdoers. Poirot achieves much of his success in solving mysteries through being considered “harmless,” even childlike, by witnesses and conspirators alike. During his investigations Poirot’s concern seems to be with the peripheral detail, rather than the case itself. As Julian Symons points out in Bloody Murder, “Poirot, in the best Holmesian style asks obscure questions that turn out to be meaningful, like his concern [in The Murder of Roger Akroyd] with the colour of the suspect’s boots” (98).

In another type of detective fiction, Raymond Chandler’s Philip Marlowe operates, in class terms, from a position of alienation from any one grouping; his marginal status enables him to have contact with a wide range of social types. Fredric Jameson, among others, comments on the episodic and “synoptic” nature of Chandler’s novels: Marlowe moves from one part of Los Angeles to another, crossing boundaries of class and wealth as well as geographical markers. Yet, although he is able to operate in a range of social and geographical settings, Marlowe himself is unable fully to engage with any of them and remains committed to a solitary life.

Both Poirot and Marlowe, in their different ways, occupy a position that is both a part of and challenging to the societies in which they operate; Poirot because of his intellectual abilities and his foreignness and Marlowe because of his romantic individualism. As such, their marginality is positively applied; it is part of their respective identities, but it is also, to varying degrees, self-imposed. By contrast, child detectives begin from a marginal position in relation to adulthood that is not of their own choosing, and from which they usually hope to escape. The adventures of Enid Blyton’s Famous Five for example, take place not because the children choose a marginal position from which to observe the adult world – on the contrary, the Five seem determined to behave in as grown-up a way as possible – but because they have been marginalized by adults. Where adult detectives use and retain the characteristics that make them positive marginal figures, child detectives use the process of detection to overcome their marginalization, to become “visible” in the adult discourse. Paradoxically, like their adult counterparts, child detectives also depend on that marginality in the process of detection; the child detective operates in a space between childhood and adulthood. In other words, the marginal position of the child detective, and the link she or he provides between adulthood and childhood, is intrinsically unstable; the relationship between the two discourses must continually be reassessed through their adventures.

An example of this process of reassessment may be found in Blyton’s first Famous Five novel, Five on a Treasure Island (1942), the plot of which depends on the children’s enforced estrangement from the concerns of adults. Julian, Anne, and Dick are sent to stay with their cousin, George, by parents who want a holiday without them, and they are largely ignored by George’s parents because the difficulties experienced by the adults are not ones with which they think the children can help. In their view, the childish discourse of play, of summer holidays, boat trips, and picnics, can contribute nothing to adult concerns of finance and academic life. The incompatibility of the two discourses can be seen in Uncle Quentin’s refusal at the end of the adventure to believe that the Five have found the treasure:

“Do you know why [the men] wanted to buy the island and the castle? Not because they really wanted to build an hotel or anything like that – but because they knew the lost gold was hidden there!”

“What nonsense are you talking?” said [Julian’s] uncle.

“It isn’t nonsense, Father!” cried George indignantly.

George’s father looked amazed and annoyed. He simply didn’t believe a word! (149)

A more dangerous, and irreconcilable rift between the children and adults in the novel, however, takes place earlier in the story when the Famous Five, who attempt to prevent the criminals from making off with the gold ingots, are held captive and are threatened with a gun. This physical threat from adults towards the child detectives in the novel is a manifestation of a more general threat in children’s detective fiction to eradicate, or, at the very least, exclude childhood itself from the lives of adults and adult discourses. More benignly, Uncle Quentin’s acceptance of the truth of the story at the conclusion of the novel represents his own reassessment of his relationship with his daughter, and perhaps with children in general. The hint at other Famous Five adventures to come, with which the novel ends, is also a hint that this reassessment of the relationship between adulthood and childhood is an ongoing process.

In order to examine this process of reassessment more closely, it is worth comparing the antagonism between adulthood and childhood with the notional conflict between what I. A. Richards, in Principles of Literary Criticism, calls “scientific” and “emotive” language. Both Richards’ general approach to linguistics and his descriptive style now seem rather dated, but his ideas are worth considering here because what he describes taking place in terms of language may be seen as roughly analogous to the experiences of child detectives as they negotiate between adulthood and childhood.

The “scientific,” and the “emotive,” Richards explains, are the “two uses” of language. “Scientific” use can be described as referential language, that is, a form of language use in which references are “true.” As Richards explains it:

A reference is true when the things to which it refers are actually together in the way in which it refers to them. Otherwise it is false. This sense is one very little involved by any of the arts. (269)

In contrast, he argues, for poetic or “emotive” language “the widest differences in reference are of no importance” (268). In other words, “scientific” language is utilitarian. It might describe a glass of wine, for example, as “a fermented alcoholic drink made from grape juice.” In comparison, Keats’s language is more “emotive,” describing the same glass as: “a beaker full of the warm South,” in his “Ode to a Nightingale.”

J. M. Barrie’s presentation of the conflict between adulthood and childhood in Peter and Wendy is also comparable with the views about “scientific” and “emotive” language expressed by Richards. Peter Pan explicitly makes the connection between his “emotive” imaginative life, and the solemn, “referential” (or “scientific”) concerns of adults. At the end of the novel Peter Pan explains his own refusal to grow up as an evasion of adulthood’s repressive tendencies:

“Would you send me to a school?” he inquired craftily.


“And then to an office?”

“I suppose so.”

“Soon I should be a man?”

“Very soon.”

“I don’t want to go to school and learn solemn things,” he told her passionately. “I don’t want to be a man: no one is going to catch me and make me a man.” (216-17)

Peter’s fear is that adulthood will eradicate from him the qualities of childhood he enjoys; as Mr Darling knows only too well, being “gay and innocent and heartless” (221) is incompatible with the world of schools and offices and social position. Unlike Peter, the Darling children must learn to curb their childish impulses in order to thrive as adults, yet it is her faded memories of Neverland that will later make Wendy a caring and sympathetic mother. Similarly, Richards attempts to propose poetry, which he calls “the supreme form of emotive language” (273), as the best method of organising emotional responses. In Literary Theory, Terry Eagleton exposes an ideological thread running through Richards’ approach that is perhaps also present in Barrie’s novel:

Organizing the lawless lower impulses more effectively will ensure the survival of the higher, finer ones; it is not far from the Victorian belief that organizing the lower classes will ensure the survival of the upper ones, and indeed is significantly related to it. (46)

Peter Pan, then, embodies the childish, non-referential, impulses which, although suppressed, continue to exist in all the adults in Barrie’s book. Like the Victorian lower classes, while Peter cannot be adapted to “respectable,” rational, middle-class adult life, he can be partially controlled through understanding and acceptance. Ultimately, however, Peter Pan can only be resisted by closing the nursery window. Just as Richards argues for an acceptance of the emotive as a way of balancing the necessity of the referential, Barrie foregrounds the playfulness of Peter Pan as a counterweight, although for most children not an alternative, to the “solemn things” with which adults must engage.

While Richards worried that social cohesion might be threatened by a failure to address people’s emotional needs through poetry, more recently, Jean Baudrillard, in The Perfect Crime, has expressed the opposite view that in fact referentiality or “reality” is at risk from a surfeit of non-referential linguistic structures. For our purposes here, then, the discourse of childhood may be roughly equated with emotive language (what Baudrillard calls the “structural play of value”) while adulthood may be viewed as equivalent to the referential or “scientific.” While children’s detective narratives depend on a conflict between the two discourses, they do not attempt to balance one with the other in the name of stability, as Richards suggests should be the case with “emotive” and “scientific” language. Rather, children’s detective fiction, as we have seen, describes the child detective operating in between the discourses of adulthood and childhood. The child detective, in this system, is the point of engagement between the two, and, crucially, is able to interrogate them both.

In contrast to the simple opposition of adulthood and childhood on which Barrie’s novel depends, child detectives must learn to combine elements from both discourses in their detection. In detective fiction for adults and for children, the child is usually invisible to adults, who would prefer him or her to stay that way. The child ceases to be invisible only when her or his actions disrupt or otherwise impinge upon adult discourses. For example, at the beginning of Kaestner’s novel, Emil is worried that he might be recognized by the policeman, Jeshke, as being one of the boys who had, in an act of Dadaesque playfulness, defaced a statue of Grand Duke Charles. While Emil had certainly been highly visible to Jeshke as he ran away from the scene, when he and his mother later meet the policeman, Emil is hardly noticed:

as Emil was good at drawing, he had been lifted up by the others to chalk a red nose and a black moustache on the duke’s face. He was just adding the finishing touches when sergeant Jeschke turned the corner of the square, and although they had all raced off at top speed, they were awfully afraid he had recognized them. However, Jeschke made no reference to that now. He merely wished Emil a pleasant journey, and asked his mother how she was, and hoped business was good. (28)

The realisation that as long as they do nothing to challenge the rules of the adult discourse they go almost unnoticed by adults, is useful to Emil and the other “detectives” later in the novel, when they spy on the man in the bowler hat who has stolen Emil’s money. While they realize they must be careful not to be seen to be following the man, they also become aware that, as children, their usual invisibility to adults makes their occasional appearance in an adult’s field of vision all the more dramatic. For example, Mr Grundeis is dismissive of the boys he sees gathering outside his hotel when he looks out of an upstairs window. Although they disgust him, he is unable to see how they might impinge upon him:

Quite a crowd of boys [was] playing football on the grass, and more boys were standing in small groups at the corner of Kleist street and outside the entrance to the underground station. “I suppose it’s holiday-time,” he thought in disgust. (145)

However, it is this very crowd which, in a different context, becomes threatening and assists in his capture:

very soon Mr Grundeis found himself completely surrounded.

He looked about in amazement. Boys swarmed round him, all laughing and talking among themselves, jostling each other, yet somehow always keeping up with him. Some of them stared at him so hard that he hardly knew where to look. (151-2)

The imposition of the crowd, and in particular the way in which individuals within it make themselves visible by staring at him, makes Grundeis suddenly aware of the children’s presence. Grundeis comes to the obscene realisation that the anonymous crowd is composed of individuals and that children can pose a threat to him as an adult. Taking the view that detective fiction generally may be read as an evocation of attempts to “fill in” the gaps in knowledge, that is, to solve mysteries, this detection of the adult criminal by the child may be seen as the detection not only of the specific criminal, but of adulthood itself.

Adulthood is presented in Emil and the Detectives as a dominant, if mysterious, discourse. Adults appear to be in control of everything – including what passes for the truth – to the extent that Emil decides not to go to the police after he is robbed because he knows he will not be believed. Although Emil begins the novel fearful of adults and the ways in which he might be punished or exploited by them, the point at which he decides not to go to the police but to follow the thief himself, is a moment of existential clarity. From that point onwards Emil and the other detectives appear to reject adult authority and control and set about exercising self-will.

While this approach can be expressed, for the individuals themselves, as an act of self-definition and rebellion, it is also significant in assessing the conflict between the discourses of adulthood and childhood. The challenge posed to the adult criminal by the child detectives may be compared with the radical challenge posed to the art establishment by the avant-garde. In the terms of Ihab Hassan’s 1967 view of postmodern or “anti-literature” expressed in “The Literature of Silence,” the child detective challenges the dominant discourse of adulthood just as “anti-literature,” in Hassan’s view, challenges the “ancient excellence of literary discourse” (11). In attempting to evade capture, Grundeis appeals to the “ancient excellence” of his status as an adult in order to dismiss Emil’s improvized objections. Having admitted that he has no proof that the money is his, Emil seems for a moment to be beaten:

“Gentlemen,” said the thief, “I give you my word of honour that the money is mine. Do I look like the kind of man who would steal from a child?”

Emil suddenly gave a jump.

“Wait a bit,” he cried, enormous relief in his voice, “I’ve thought of something. In the train I pinned the envelope with the money to the inside of my pocket, so there ought to be holes pricked through all three notes.” (163-4)

Having implied that the detection of the adult criminal by the child detective demonstrates the radical nature of childhood as a discourse, it is worth noting here that the process of detection itself, even in children’s detective fiction, seems peculiarly adult. Emil’s realization that the pin-holes in the money might “mean” something, appeals to the adult authorities’ predilection for rational methods and referentiality. Indeed, it is perhaps Emil’s earlier challenge to adult authority – the defacing of the statue – that seems the more subversive, since the actions of child detectives such as Emil are ultimately pleasing to responsible, law-abiding adults.

This apparent reversal in our view of the child detective can be explained in terms of the earlier brief consideration of Richards and Baudrillard. In their own ways, both are concerned with shifts in the balance between emotive and referential language; in other words, between the use value and referential value of the sign. The rational process of detection in this formulation would seem to be more akin to the “scientific” language Richards identifies while, by contrast, the playfulness of Emil’s defacing of the statue could be described as “emotive.” Indeed, the similarity between Emil’s addition of a moustache to a public statue and Marcel Duchamp’s reworking of the “Mona Lisa” suggests that Emil’s own Dadaist project might also have the effect of problematizing through ridicule the relationship between signs and their referents. At the very least, Emil’s act of vandalism might appear to render the statue, and its cultural “meaning,” absurd.

This challenge to referential systems of value is suggestive of what Baudrillard describes as the “structural play” of signs. For Richards, the benefit of emotive uses of language, such as poetry, is that they need have no political purpose or relationship to a reality beyond their own structural boundaries. For Baudrillard, however, such a lack of functional or referential systems of linguistic exchange makes protest impossible. Thus, the addition of the moustache to the statue proves to be, as Emil himself later discovers, no threat at all to the dominant adult discourse, since Emil’s “critique” involves nothing more than the benign juxtaposition of statue and moustache.

In becoming a detective, then, Emil shifts away from a discourse of interchangeable meaning, and the relative value of signs to one another, that characterizes childish behaviour in the novel. As we have seen, the discourse of childhood, while appearing subversive, in fact leaves him powerless to protest his marginalization. The “functional” system he adopts as a detective, in which value relations purport to be absolute and comparable, and signs have referential value, allows him no more freedom, however, than “play” since in detecting in this way he must subscribe to a value system that is independent of him and pre-ordained. Unfortunately, the apparent freedom Emil gains through solving the mystery is bought at the cost of his accepting the place of the statue (which glorifies a militant, imperialistic aristocracy) within a referential system that places political power elsewhere.

As a detective story, Emil and the Detectives is closer to the American “hard-boiled” form than the deductive “scientific” model of, say, Doyle or Christie. It is difficult to describe Emil’s and the other detectives’ method as “scientific,” since, like hard-boiled detectives, their detection is more to do with following the thief, watching and finally apprehending him, than it is with interpreting clues. The mystery that Emil and other detectives like him investigate, is more to do with the mystery of their identity and their place in the world than with who committed the crime. In particular, they learn adult modes of behaviour such as patience and organisation, but along the way they also reveal the secret of the link between criminality and childishness.

Kaestner’s novel, like other detective novels for children in which child detectives solve crimes committed by adults, privileges a referential system of exchange by equating childhood with criminality. Criminals tend to be characters who operate outside of this “adult” discourse of referentiality. For example, Grundeis’s theft is wrong in the absolute terms of the prevailing moral and legal structures, but also because it subverts the referential adult exchange system of work and pay which those structures serve to protect. Grundeis’s irresponsible theft of money that Emil’s mother had to work hard to earn can be compared here with Peter Pan’s refusal to work in an office. Like Peter Pan, Grundeis behaves “childishly.” He rejects the “solemn” existence of most adults who work for a living; he eats well, travels by taxi, and stays in hotels. Just as Peter Pan’s decision not to grow up means he must stay in Neverland with the “Lost Boys,” Grundeis’s decision to become a thief rather than earn his living leads to his arrest and imprisonment. Rather than radically challenging adulthood, then, the child detective in such a formulation detects and punishes if not childhood itself, then at least its impulse to relative value and structural exchange. A further example is that Emil later confesses his “crime” against the statue in Neustadt and expects but does not receive, punishment for his “emotive” act of playfulness. The child detective’s responsible handing over of the adult criminal to adult authorities is a betrayal of his or her own radical and subversive discourse of childhood.

Far from directly challenging the discourses of adulthood, then, child detectives seek to eradicate or at least abandon their defining characteristics as children. Following the success of his detective work, Emil explicitly rejects his earlier childish behaviour and seeks absolution for his “sin”:

Emil took the plunge. “I chalked a red nose and moustache on the statue of Grand Duke Charles in Neustadt,” he confessed. “So you’d better arrest me sir.”

To his surprise the five men burst out laughing, instead of looking grave as he expected.
“Bless me!” exclaimed the big man, “we can’t go arresting one of our best detectives!” (179-80)

Emil’s surprise that he is not punished for his “crime” suggests he is, up to this point, unaware of the full significance of his detecting; he is being rewarded not only for apprehending the thief, but for rejecting the childish exchange system that the act of vandalism represents. Emil further shows his participation in adult discourses and systems of exchange when he offers to treat “Mr. Kaestner,” a journalist who paid his tram fare during the pursuit of the criminal, to cream cakes in a cafe. His willingness to participate in adult economic activity is seen as a sign of independence by “Kaestner” and the other adults, when it might also be seen as a capitulation to the dominant referential adult discourse. The fact that Emil offers to buy cream cakes rather than any other kind of food might suggest that he remains childish in his tastes despite having “solved” the mystery of adulthood.

The success of a child detective, then, lies not so much in apprehending a criminal as escaping childhood and achieving the right to self-determination that Peter Pan so flamboyantly and paradoxically rejects. Furthermore, that attainment of the freedom of self-determination is expressed in the awarding of the privilege of participating in economic, that is, referential, exchanges. For example, at the end of Emil and the Detectives, part of Emil’s reward is in being allowed to buy his mother a coat; to participate in a “referential” or “functional” exchange of money for goods. Similarly, at the end of The Falcon’s Malteser, the two brothers receive one of the missing diamonds and are able to settle their debts, while at the end of Five on a Treasure Island, George explains that she will divide up the treasure between the four children. As we have seen, however, since a refusal to participate in such a system is considered childish or even criminal, the extent of the freedom on offer is rather more limited than it might seem.

In Kaestner’s novel, Emil’s decision to purchase his mother a coat is not only indicative of his participation in the discourse of adulthood, however, but is also a reversal of the economic power relationship between the male child and his mother with which the novel begins:

Emil’s father was dead, so Mrs. Tischbein had to work to keep herself and him. She had not only to earn enough to pay the rent, the gas and coal bills, but there were Emil’s school fees as well, and the cost of his books. There were also times when she was not well, and had to have a doctor. Emil used to look after her at such times, and even did the cooking. (23)

Emil begins the novel playing the “feminine” role in the relationship and ends having earned the right to play the “masculine.” This is presented not as conflict but compromise. Emil can do housework and be “masculine,” and we are told not to laugh at Emil “for being rather a good boy to his mother” (23-4). However, it is significant that Emil’s temporary transition from child to adult behaviour and exchange systems should occur alongside this shift from what is presented as the feminine to the masculine in terms of the acquisition of economic power.

Although the novel is conservative in its privileging of the referential over the emotive, with all the implications outlined above, Emil himself does not, during the period covered by the plot, make a permanent move from childhood to adulthood, or from the “emotive” to the “referential.” Because of his age he must return to the position of the child. One “lesson” Emil’s mother learns from his adventure, for example, is that “children shouldn’t be allowed to travel alone” (217). As we have seen, however, Emil seems less at risk from the actual thief than from adulthood itself which lures him into behaving in an adult way, and it is perhaps of this “growing up” that his mother is most afraid. As Bobbie Ann Mason points out in relation to the (female) Bobbsey Twins, “from the cradle the girl is oriented backward, to prevent her blossoming and awakening, her growth” (27). Similarly, while Emil’s success is rewarded, and his future adult status confirmed (one possible difference between male and female child detectives), there is relief among his adult relatives that he remains a child, although a rather more worldly one than before.

Children’s detective fiction, then, appears not as a radical detection of adulthood by the child, or childlike, detective, but rather a struggle for participation in adult discourse. The temporary participation in adult discourse that makes possible the child detective’s success, depends on the child detective being able to move between adulthood and childhood, to operate, in a sense, between the two. As has been noted by Mason, however, girl detectives are prevented from developing into women within their fictional framework. In contrast, Emil is given some temporary access to adult male power, although the final transition he will make from childhood to adulthood – outside the boundaries of the novel – will be controlled by his mother and other adult relatives.

Such an ability to operate from a position between competing discourses is characteristic of many detective narratives. What makes this interesting in terms of children’s detective fiction is that the process of detection involves the detective’s interrogation of the mystery of what he or she is or has been (a child), and what she or he will become (an adult). Furthermore, the perceived “childishness” of the criminal’s behaviour suggests that the child detective in some way attempts not only to capture the adult criminal, but to make sure that childhood itself is apprehended and locked away. What distinguishes the child-adult detective and the adult-child criminal from others in the novel is their ability easily to shift between the two competing discourses, each of which is absent to the other. For example, as we have seen, for many of the adults in Kaestner’s novel, including at times the thief himself, children and childhood are practically invisible; it is such invisibility to the eyes of adults that makes it possible for them to operate covertly as detectives.

We are talking here, perhaps, about a third, marginal discourse of the child-adult detective and the adult-child criminal. It is a discourse founded on absence, which emerges as subversive not only of the dominant adult discourse but of the very notion of competing discourses itself. It is the child detective’s marginal position that enables him or her to make the transition from the “invisible” to the “visible.” In terms of Mr Grundeis’s experience in Emil, the child detective shifts from being part of a meaningless crowd, to being an intimidating, staring face; the face of the victim refusing to be victimized.

Works Cited

Barrie, J. M. Peter and Wendy. 1911. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991.
Baudrillard, Jean. The Perfect Crime. 1995. Trans. Chris Turner. London: Verso, 1996.
Block, Lawrence. A Walk Among the Tombstones. London: Phoenix Books, 1994.
Blyton, Enid. Five on a Treasure Island. 1942. London: Hodder Children’s Books, 1991.
de la Mare, Walter. “Introduction.” 1959. Erich Kaestner. Emil and the Detectives. London: Red Fox, 1995. 9-12.
Eagleton, Terry. Literary Theory: An Introduction. Oxford: Blackwell, 1983.
Hassan, Ihab. “The Literature of Silence.” 1967. The Postmodern Turn: Essays in Postmodern Theory and Culture. Columbus, OH: Ohio State University Press, 1987. 3-22.
Horowitz, Anthony. The Falcon’s Malteser. 1986. London: Walker Books, 1995.
Hunt, Peter. An Introduction to Children’s Literature. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994.
Jameson, Fredric. “The Synoptic Chandler.” Ed. Joan Copjec. Shades of Noir. London: Verso, 1993. 33-56.
Kästner, Erich. Emil and the Detectives. 1928. Trans. Eileen Hall. London: Red Fox, 1995.
Mason, Bobbie Ann. The Girl Sleuth: A Feminist Guide. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1995.
Richards, I. A. Principles of Literary Criticism. 1924. London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trubner and Co., 1938.
Symons, Julian. Bloody Murder: From the Detective Story to the Crime Novel. Harmondsworth: Viking, 1985.

Buy the Book

You can buy the book from the publisher here, as an e-book.