“Emil and the Detectives” (by Wynn Quon)

Making his debut in EQMM’s May/June 2020 issue (on sale yesterday!) with the story “Art in Pieces” is Canadian writer Wynn Quon, whose previous literary credits are for short film and theater. The Ottowa resident’s short stories have won the Audrey Jessup Crime Fiction Short Story Prize and the Wolfe Island Mystery Short Story Prize, but his current EQMM story (in our Department of First Stories) is his first paid professional fiction publication. In this post he pays loving tribute to a writer who inspired him at a very young age.—Janet Hutchings

When I was nine years old my family got on an Air Canada flight and we flew from Cardiff, Wales to Ottawa, Canada.  It was a big move. My father went from being an owner of a laundry to working as a waiter in a Chinese restaurant. We left a ramshackle house on a narrow commercial street (ironically named “Broadway”), for a red-brick low-rise apartment building in what looked like a boring neighborhood.  But I soon found out that the surrounding houses with their wooden verandas and dandelioned lawns were homes to a number of large Italian immigrant families.

Within days of arriving, I was running around with the kids from the block. Making friends is a childhood superpower. There was Nino, a skinny boy of seven with ears that stood out from his head.  Gino, a short urchin with a pudgy face who would punch you on the arm whenever he could. Italo who knew the multiplication table the best. Pina was the only girl; she was older with long brown hair and a high-pitched voice. That summer, our ragtag battalion rode bikes across those patchy lawns and made them even patchier.  We flew paper airplanes.  We set fire to newspapers with a magnifying glass. We yelled at the top of our lungs for no reason.  I loved it.

But then my parents added a tiny sidestep to our family journey.  We moved at the end of that year to another apartment, a mile away. Sadly, it was on a busy four-lane street, a route for commuters and little else.  There were no other children, no lawns to trample, no Italian families. I lost my troops.

One consolation was the public library. No doubt many of you share childhood memories of how magical libraries are.  I went the whole hog. The library was ten minutes away for a fast walker.  I made it in five. I borrowed books by the armfuls. My mother worried for my eyesight.  I smuggled books home under my coat. I read them by the pale light of the streetlamp outside my bedroom window when I was supposed to be sleeping.

It was in that frame of mind that I came across Emil and the Detectives.  The library copy was a worn paperback, with a mysterious canary-yellow cover featuring two boys shadowing an enigmatic man with a funny hat.

The story: Ten-year-old Emil Tischbein is sent to Berlin by train to visit his grandmother. He carries a goodly sum of money as a gift that his widowed mother, a hairdresser, had squirreled away for a year. Onboard, Emil meets a strange man who spins fantastical tales of the city. Emil falls asleep and when he awakens, the man is gone and so is the hard-earned money.  Emil spots the man in the crowd at the train station and follows him into Berlin.  There he recruits a gang of boys and together they ingeniously bring the thief to justice.

You can see why this story resonated with me.  The exciting universe of a new city.  The comforting camaraderie of a motley crew you called your own.  It reminded me of Nino, Gino, and the others. I wanted to be Emil so much, I ached.

Fast forward four decades, past school and university, past a career in technology, past relationships both bountiful and regretful, past all the murmurings and unpredictable upheavals in the world to the year 2018.  In that year I decided out of a middle-aged restlessness to travel. I ended up in Berlin for the first time but Emil was not on my mind at all. Although I remembered the book with great fondness, I had not re-read it in the four decades since.  But while on a guided tour of Bebelplatz, a public square in central Berlin, I came across the name of Erich Kastner.  It rang a bell and I quickly rediscovered that he was Emil Tischbein’s creator.

I did some casual research and was surprised to learn two things.  First, when I had read the book I imagined the author as someone in their twenties (a substantial and mature age from a child’s perspective). It turns out Emil and the Detectives was published in 1929.  It had been in print for nearly fifty years before I had picked it out from the well-stuffed shelves of paperbacks in the Ottawa Public Library.  The second thing was graver. Erich Kastner’s pre-WWII writing reflected a social democratic and pacifist philosophy.  Notable among his adult books was Fabian, a satire on the moral and financial malaise of 1920s Berlin.  It was unpopular with the far-right. On May 10, 1933, copies of Fabian along with twenty thousand other volumes by a score of other German authors were burned in the Bebelplatz square in an infamous rally led by Joseph Goebbels. Kastner was the only one of the authors who attended the burning, describing his books being burned “in dark festive splendor.”  The experience was made more harrowing when a Nazi sympathizer pointed Kastner out to the crowd. Luckily he managed to escape.  Kastner was to survive the war but he suffered interrogation by the Gestapo, and the incineration of his home city of Dresden.

Kastner’s fascinating back story made me want reread Emil and the Detectives. But I was a little nervous.  Would the book still captivate me? One good sign: It was still in print after ninety years and has been translated into sixty-odd languages.  On the other hand a quick quiz of my younger friends was discouraging.  Most hadn’t heard of the book.

I had forgotten all of the book’s plot details.  I remembered only the warm feelings I had on reading it.  I remembered taking the beloved book with me to bed and hiding it under my pillow. I now worried I might end up destroying those shining memories I had of it.  In the end, curiosity won.

The copy I managed to buy had the same delightful cover as the original. Here is how the book starts:

“Now, then,” said Frau Tischbein, “follow me with that pitcher of water.” She herself took up another pitcher and the little blue jug brimful of liquid chamomile soap and walked out of the kitchen into the living-room. Emil clutched hold of his pitcher and ran after his mother.

A woman with her head bent over the white basin sat in the living-room. Her flaxen hair was down and hung from her head like three pounds of wool. Emil’s mother poured the steaming shampoo over the woman’s hair. Then she began to wash this strange head until it foamed with soap-suds.

“Is it too hot?” she asked.

“No, it is all right,” the head answered.

Ah, I was won over right away. As an adult I often use the First Page Test. If a book doesn’t engage me right from the start I’m not going to stay for the finish. Life is short and getting shorter. (My immortal ten-year old self would have laughed at this).  Emil passed the test with ease.

I love the image —the woolly head that talks.  I don’t think I appreciated this on a conscious level when I was ten years old. Children are magnetically attracted to words that bring visuals, sounds, and all the other senses to life. Some among you will recognize this as one of the canonical “how-to-write-well” rules. (To write a classic means to write for the inner child in the reader?).

I ended up reading the book in one sitting. I did not expect to enjoy the book in the same way as I did a child. But I was charmed nevertheless. I especially enjoyed the quirky characters.  The villainous Herr Grundeis gets only one extended speech in the book where he tells Emil a tall tale of life in Berlin:

“. . . if one has no money one can go to a bank, get fifty pounds and leave one’s brain in exchange.  No human being can live longer than two days without a brain, and he can’t get it back from the bank unless he pays sixty pounds.”

The book ends on an uproarious note. The last chapter is entitled “Is there a moral to this story?” Emil and his beloved relatives tell us what they’ve learned.  But instead of the pious moralizing you see in those sad children’s books that try to “teach something,” the lessons they recite are completely off-the-wall and contradict everything that happened.  The real lesson is obvious in the uncompromising good-heartedness of Emil and his buddies. It was that goodheartedness that captured me years ago, when it helped a ten-year-old cope with the grey sadness of losing his playmates.

I am no Kastner, so I can’t avoid ending this little review on a moral note. On that wretched evening on May 10, 1933, when Goebbels raged and the fires consumed thousands of books, when the Nazis were just beginning their spiral downwards into the blackest abyss, they may have burned Fabian, but they did not dare to touch Emil and the Detectives.

I suspect they knew the little book had a heart of goodness that even they could not destroy.

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7 Responses to “Emil and the Detectives” (by Wynn Quon)

  1. Shelly Dickson Carr says:

    Love, love, loved this blog post 👍

    • wynn quon says:

      I’m so glad you liked it Shelly. And speaking of childhood memories, I remember seeing your grandfather’s(?) books on the shelves of our library as a child!

  2. V.S. Kemanis says:

    A beautiful post, thank you. I also remember Emil and the Detectives from my childhood.

    • wynn quon says:

      I wasn’t sure how many other Emil fans there were out there! Thanks so much for the kind words.

  3. Maria Somjen says:

    Thank you for bringing in our childhood back to us! Beautiful review.

  4. Susan D says:

    Great post.
    I recall that Erich Kästner also wrote Das doppelte Lottchen, aka Lottie and Lisa, which became one of my favourite childhood films, The Parent Trap. I have an old Penguin edition, in English.
    Congratulations on the EQMM story.

  5. Michael Allen says:

    Makes me want to read this book. Thank you Wynn.

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