Johnny Swanson (by Eleanor Updale)

23 05 2012

Eleanor Updale is probably most known for the Montmorency series. In Johnny Swanson, set in London in 1929, with a couple of actual historical places (the Welsh Craig-y-Nos sanatorium) and events (TB scare, importance of newspaper ads)  in the background, she also takes the historical fiction route and introduces us to 11-year-old Johnny, the shortest boy in his class, and the unlikely hero of this crime adventure.

The shortest boy in his class, Johnny decides to ‘borrow’ money from his mother’s Peace Mug to send a letter to the person who seems to have the answer to the “secret to instant height”. When he receives a note advising him to “stand on a box”, he is too embarrassed that he was tricked, to tell his mother. The ad trick (he saw the ad in the local paper), though, does inspire Johnny to start running his own advert scam to gain back the money that he borrowed from his mother and then some… Johnny has the best of intentions but it soon spins out of control and he finds himself inventing a sick Aunt Ada who supposedly lives in with Johnny and his mom. The actual crime part of the book doesn’t start until well into the second half when the retired town doctor Langdon ends up dead… somehow everything is related to a recent TB scare and the invention of a vaccine and Johnny  even finds himself at the heart of the murder mystery when his mother Winnie is arrested. As he feels responsible (if he hadn’t started the ad scam, his mother wouldn’t have been upset with Johnny and run out of the house in the first place), he is desperate to clear her name, which he tries to do together with shopkeeper Hutch.

The first part of the novel in which we get to know Johnny is definitely the strongest part. I feel that the events of the murder mystery are all a little bit too convenient and too coincidental. I’m sure that the reason for this is that it’s aimed at a younger audience, but still… it’s all a bit too neatly tied up for the cat… Johnny Swanson is still a nice book though, although the beginning promised more than just nice. Kids interested in a great adventure story with a very likeable main character will be in for a treat.

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