Street-smart boy turns detective in a murder case
By Eleanor Updale
Published by David Fickling Books
ISBN 978 0385 61642 3
We are told never to judge a book by its cover, which is just as well because some publishers of youth fiction pay very little attention to the cover they wrap round a novel.
But just picking up Eleanor Updale's Johnny Swanson is a pleasure because of its immediately fun and interesting cover. A cartoon of a grinning curly-haired boy is plonked right in the middle of a few dodgy newspaper advertisements.
What's going on? You've got to open the book to find out.
The boy on the cover is, of course, the hero of the book, Johnny Swanson. We are in the year 1929 as England is still trying to recover from the devastating effects of the first world war.
Winnie Swanson lost her husband in the war, and her son Johnny lost his father. Winnie has to work hard to bring in enough money to support both of them.
Johnny does his bit by delivering newspapers for Hutch, the owner of a local shop. Life is hard, but Johnny's sunny personality and natural optimism keep him going, even when things look as if they will never get any better. He just keeps carrying on.
Johnny is small for his age, and he hates it when other boys at school taunt him. When he sees a classified advert in the local newspaper promising to reveal the secret of instant height, he sends off some money to the advertiser, thinking this will solve one of his problems.
When he gets the answer in the post, he is outraged and embarrassed that he has been tricked. The answer to getting instant height is to stand on a chair.
But Johnny, ever one to turn a misfortune into an advantage, sees great possibilities in thinking up a few clever newspaper scams himself to bring in a bit of much-needed cash. He keeps what he's up to a secret, and, to his delight, the money starts rolling in.
Suddenly, the local community is rocked by a terrible event. The town's doctor is murdered and, unbelievably, Johnny's mother is arrested for the death.
From here, the book takes off in a completely different direction as our young hero turns detective.
There is a lot going on in the clever and original plot. The late doctor had been trying to develop a vaccine to cure tuberculosis, a disease that caused a quarter of British deaths in the 1920s and 30s. As Johnny works undercover to prove his mother's innocence, all sorts of deadly secrets are brought to the surface both around his home and far beyond.
Johnny Swanson is sheer entertainment and does not try to be anything else. It begins as a funny distraction, but then moves in an exciting direction as Johnny plays sleuth.
Updale brings the three main strands of her novel cleverly together in the second half, and it's not giving any spoilers to say everything ends happily. Johnny Swanson is a delightful, delicious and original romp.
John Millen can be contacted on MillenBookshelf@aol.com