Johnny Swanson, a ten-year-old boy, is the main protagonist of this story set in 1929 England. He lives with his mother, Winnie, who works as a cleaner for Mrs Langford, the doctor’s wife, and struggles to find enough money to feed them and pay the rent. Johnny works for Mr Hutchinson, the local postmaster and grocer, delivering newspapers. Other characters in Johnny’s world are Mrs Dangerfield, a bitter old woman, who lost her brother and family to TB and her fiancé to the war; Mr Murray, Johnny’s teacher and another war victim, who victimizes Johnny because he is small and not very good at PE and Olwen, a new girl at Johnny’s school, whose family are refugees from a TB epidemic back home in Wales.
Dr Langford is a secret TB vaccine researcher working without government permission. He befriends Johnny, but is soon found murdered. Winnie is accused as her bloodstained apron is found at the doctor’s house, so Johnny has to prove her innocence.
The reader is gripped and wants to read on. The historical details help rather than hinder the storyline, creating period atmosphere. We learn more about the discovery of the French TB BCG vaccine which was approved by the League of Nations in 1928. We read newspaper advertisements for various treatments which wouldn’t be allowed now: “Umckaloabo … a real specific” for tuberculosis and the secret of instant height, which fools Johnny into sending off some money which they can ill afford only to be told “Stand on a box”. This last gives Johnny the idea to run a similar money-making scheme using fictitious Auntie Ada. Postal orders, pre-decimal coinage, hula hoops, the Great War, TB sanatoria all conjure up Johnny’s 1929 world.
The language and vocabulary is straightforward and would suit 8 to 12 year olds.