Emil and the Detectives, by Erich Kastner, was an instant hit when it was published in 1928. Just three years later it was adapted into a film and the book and its sequel, Emil and the Three Twins, have since been translated and adapted many times. But the book is not simply notable for its success; it also brought a great deal of innovation to the world of children’s literature.
The hero of the book, Emil Tischbein, is a boy who is set a task: to take some money by train to his grandmother, who lives in the big city, Berlin. Money is a big deal as he is being brought up by a single mother. We hear that his father was a plumber but died, and his mother has to work as a hairdresser. With a touch of realism that is the flavour of the book as a whole, we learn that, ‘Sometimes she is ill, and then Emil fries eggs for her and for himself’. So, Emil is anxious about the money in his pocket on the train. He is also anxious about a crime he has committed: together with his friends, he has drawn a moustache on the face of the town statue of the Grand Duke Charles.
On the way to Berlin, Emil sits in a carriage with an odd gentleman, Herr Grundeis, and though he tries to avoid it happening, Emil falls asleep. When he wakes up, his money has gone and so has Herr Grundeis. This occurs not long after a quarter of the way through the book, so for the rest of the story we live with Emil’s swirling emotions, his meetings with a group of boys in Berlin, and the eventual capture of Grundeis. The reason why Emil doesn’t involve the police is because he fears exposure as the crimina~ who daubed the Grand Duke’s statue. The word ‘detectives’ is in the title, but in a way the book is a detective novel in reverse, as it requires Emil and the boys to first catch the criminal and only then prove his guilt to unbelieving adults.
The secret to the book’s popularity may be lost on many adults, who may doubt the likelihood of children taking such control of events. After all, the detective in most fiction is usually a clever adult who will make the world safer for us ordinary mortals. Perhaps it is even a contradiction that children, who are the symbols of innocence, can be as clever as their fictional adult counterparts. But that, of course, is the point of the book: real children, with flaws (they might fall asleep on the train, or lie to their parents), manage a very difficult job. We should remember that children’s fiction often appeals to a child’s desire for power and independence. As smaller, un-powerful members of the human race, they are greatly attracted by heroes that are capable of acts beyond a child’s usual capabilities.
When Emil and the Detectives first appeared, it broke new ground in many ways at once. It is probably the first of the ‘child detective’ books, a genre taken up so successfully by other authors. It is also one of the first books for children that gives us a full picture of a child in a single-parent family of very little means, and one of the first which treats the city as a place of excitement. And it appears to approve of the actions of children working together for a common purpose without the guidance of adults.
As if this wasn’t enough, there are many more technical innovations, too. The book breaks from the usual format of a single line of narrative told to us in the third person by a knowing narrator, and adds witty one-page commentaries on people appearing in the story. These are written in the first person as if the narrator is thinking aloud for our benefit and talking directly to us. The dialogues, too, are innovative since in the original German the boys whom Emil meets talk with a Berlin slang. Whereas in most children’s books of the time urban speech told the reader that that person was bad or stupid, in Emil and the Detectives the local dialect seems to confirm the resourcefulness of the boys. Even the film adaptation was innovative in the realistic acting of child actors and the use of ‘synch’ sound on location on the streets of Berlin.
The original context for the story stemmed partly from Kastner’s own life. He was born in 1899 and grew up in a small town rather like Emil’s home town, and like Emil he lost his father when he was young. He, too, then made his way to Berlin, where he worked as a writer. But we should note that not all the credit for the story can go to Kastner, for it was the head of a Berlin publishing house, Edith Jacobsen, that approached him, and she who suggested the idea of a children’s detective novel.
A. The huge Park Hill housing development in Sheffield is a Brutalist masterpiece, widely praised by architects, and it has been admired by many in the media, too, since its recent redevelopment. But it has had a controversial past. Jack Lynn, one of a pair of idealistic young architects leading the project, designed Park Hill when there was a major post-war shortage of housing in the city. In December 1940, two nights of bombing had brought devastation to the area, destroying many of the Victorian terraced streets. The city was left with a major homelessness problem, which became even worse when the remaining Victorian housing was judged unsuitable for living in. Land was also in short supply as much of it was ‘green belt’.
B. In a desperate effort to solve the problem, Sheffield City Council sent a group of experts to look at housing projects in Europe. They returned full of enthusiasm for the modernist developments they had seen. The inspiration for Jack Lynn, his colleague Ivor Smith, and the city architect Lewis Womersley, was the work of Le Corbusier, whose concrete ‘streets in the sky’ were very popular in France. The idea was to replace Sheffield’s slums with ultra-modern flats and facilities, recreating the communities that had flourished in the pre-war housing developments. The new development was also designed as a response to what were considered, even in the 1950s, to be modern architecture’s failures: empty spaces, isolation, a lack of street life, and a middle-class ‘we know what’s good for you’ ethos.
C. When the estate was formally opened in 1961, Park Hill was intended to be a perfect vision of social housing. Conceived as a town within a town, it consisted of 996 flats that would house almost 3,000 people and was equipped with every sort of public facility – shops, a doctors’ surgery, dentist, clinic, nursery, school, four pubs, and a police station. While most tower blocks of the era had flats built around narrow, dark corridors, Park Hill’s flats had interlinked ‘street decks’ – communal areas running along each storey where children could play and families socialise. The decks were as broad as real streets and wide enough for a milk float to pass along. The blocks of flats themselves were connected by walkways, and their height varied, from four storeys to thirteen, in order to maintain a roof line that remained level across the development.
D. Motivated by a deep social commitment, Jack Lynn and his colleagues did everything they could to ensure that the new residents felt at home in their new environment. Cobblestones from the old terraced streets surrounded the flats and paved the pathways down the hill to Sheffield station; brick infill panels were made of the same material as the houses they replaced, and the flats all had traditional front doorsteps. Each floor was given an old street name and neighbours were rehoused together.
E. A survey of residents conducted by the housing department a year after the flats had been officially opened was overwhelmingly positive, and awards were heaped on the designers. ‘When one looks out from some part of it and sees another of its limbs swinging across the view,’ enthused the architectural critic Reyner Banham, ‘the effect is like that of suddenly realising that the railway lines on the other side of some valley in Switzerland are the same that one’s own train has just traversed a few moments before.’ The vision of Park Hill as a living community also seemed justified. Of the walkways, Banham wrote: ‘Toddlers play on them, teens mend bikes and swap gossip, and grannies stand at their doors … ‘
F. But Park Hill did not age as well as its admirers hoped. The concrete in which it was built proved less suited to the damp climate of Sheffield than the dry heat of the south of France, and as the years passed it became damaged. By the 1970s problems were accumulating. Cockroaches invaded the estate and a series of violent attacks led to headlines in the papers. In the 1980s, as unemployment soared, social problems multiplied. There were burnt-out cars, boarded-up shops, rubbish, and graffiti. The council was accused of dumping problem families there, while the ‘streets in the sky’ proved an ideal place for gangs to hide from police. Deliverymen found that they often had to dodge milk bottles and other missiles, while older inhabitants who had once chatted and gossiped with their neighbours began locking their doors. The cost of refurbishing the flats and of maintenance was also getting too high as councils struggled to deal with the many problems. By the 1980s, Park Hill had come to be regarded as a dangerous no-go area, an embarrassing blot on the face of the city.
A. We humans have evolved to relate emotionally to non-living objects, which is strange when you think about it. Children play with dolls and toy soldiers as if they were people. Adults talk to their cars. As long as they are robotlike and ‘mechanical’, we are comfortable around them, and can display affection (as for an old car). But when it comes to human-like robots, something different happens. As they become more human-like, our affection disappears and we begin to feel less comfortable. Our liking turns to revulsion. Androids that look too human freak us out.
B. This odd phenomenon is called the ‘uncanny valley’, a term coined by robotics professor Masahiro Mori. But the effect has particularly confused and puzzled engineers and scientists who design robots and interactive software. The term comes from the dip in a graph with two parameters: affection and human likeness. As human likeness increases, so does our affection. As soon as the resemblance becomes too great, though, affection drops below zero – hence the ‘valley’. The effect was highlighted by studies of machines such as the Geminoid F robot, created by Professor Hiroshi Ishiguro of Kyoto University. His robots have human-like bodies but their movements, although impressively humanlike, show something of the mechanism beneath their ‘skin’ and people didn’t respond well to them. Making robots look human is a major goal of robotic engineers and scientific writers have long dreamt of androids, so the ‘uncanny valley’ could potentially spell the end to their dream.
C. Researchers have tried to find the cause of the ‘uncanny valley’. One of the most interesting insights has come from an international team led by Ayse Pinar Saygin of the University of California, San Diego (UCSD). Saygin and her team conducted an experiment scanning the brains of twenty subjects aged 20-36 while they were looking at three different things: a human, a mechanical-looking robot, and a human-like robot. Interpreting the results from the fMRI scans, the researchers suggested that the cause for the valley is a conflict in perception between two processes in the brain: that of recognising a human-like face and that of recognising different kinds of movement.
D. These processes, or pathways, meet in an area of the brain called the parietal cortex. There, information from the visual cortex relating to bodily movement is integrated with information from the motor cortex that contains mirror neurons, the brain cells that register that what we are seeing is ‘one of us’. Alarm bells go off in the brain when there is a conflict between the human-like features of the robot and its inhuman movement. This mismatch creates a feeling of revulsion similar to what we feel when looking at a movie zombie. We instinctively expect human-like creatures to have human-like movements. As Saygin says: ‘The brain … look(s) for its expectations to be met – for appearance and motion to (match).’
E. The discomfort we feel is not logical and has its roots in our evolutionary past. Researchers believe that the modern mind came into being between 60,000 and 40,000 years ago when pathways in the brain became connected, probably thanks to the evolution of language. The way we understand our world then emerged from these new connections. Robotic evolution challenges this mental ‘software’ of ours. The ‘uncanny valley’ seems to represent the point at which logic stops and our instincts start to react.
F. Despite such studies, many (e.g. MacDorman et al) believe that cultural factors also contribute to the effect, and researchers have pointed to the fact that young people who are used to technology seem less affected by the effect. Furthermore, the ‘uncanny valley’ effect has been observed in our response to still photographs of humans that have been altered slightly with Photoshop software. Even as far back as the 19th century, the great naturalist Charles Darwin noticed that we react most adversely to species with eyes, nose and mouth arranged like our own. The phenomenon may therefore be more complex than Saygin’s research suggests.
G. So is this the end of robots as we have dreamt them? Are our brains unable to cope with mechanical doubles? Perhaps not. It may just be a temporary phenomenon. The positive response to recent androids shows that once the design and movements of robots become even more human-like, the affection graph rises again from the ‘uncanny valley’; acceptability returns steeply to normal. We seem to be at ease with androids that have human bodies and human movements, even if we know they are not human. As we cross the ‘uncanny valley’ another basic instinct comes into play: empathy. It is possible to mix human and mechanical characteristics without getting trapped in ‘uncanny valley’. Eventually, human-like robots will make us love them, too.
(Q.1 to Q.10)
1 his grandmother
9 Not Given
(Q.11 to Q.20)
12 Not Given
(Q.21 to Q.30)
21 front doorsteps
22 roof line
23 (a) survey
24 (the) the concrete
25 problem families
(Q.31 to Q.40)
38 Not Given