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By Marlis Day

Sterling House, May 1999
ISBN: 1-563-15184-7

Reviewed by Karen Meek

WHY JOHNNY DIED is the first adventure of Indiana schoolteacher Margo Brown. For the first time in twenty years teaching, Margo has to cope with the death of one of her pupils. Twelve-year-old Johnny Benson, who was very fond of lizards and kept some as pets, has died from a poisonous bite of a snake he's thought to have brought home.

Margo is naturally upset and is further dismayed when she reads the few entries in Johnny's journal and finds out how lonely his childhood had been. With no father and a mother with drinking problems, Johnny was often neglected. When she rereads the journal she begins to suspect that Johnny's death wasn't an accident. She reveals her suspicions to the school principal but he tells her she's wrong and refuses to raise it with the sheriff. Margo discusses it with her friend and colleague Roxie and they decide to snoop around and solve the case themselves.

WHY JOHNNY DIED is very easy to read and the author's love of language shines through. The author does an excellent job of making the reader care for the victim, and I found the descriptions of Johnny and his lack of future quite moving. Margo has a distinctive voice and it's refreshing to hear from a more "mature" protagonist.

Though the book contains some humourous comments from Margo, and Margo and Roxie obviously enjoy their sleuthing, you're never very far from the fact that a young boy has died. One of the underlying themes is that of people not doing what's best for a child but what's best for themselves. The author concludes the book by saying, "Maybe we all killed Johnny."

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