Dead Man's Hand
This mystery novel by Eddie Jones is the first in " The Caden Chronicles" series published by Zonderkidz, a trademark of Zondervan Publishers.
Dead Man's Hand is written for kids ages 12 to 14. The age range reflects readability and not necessarily content appropriateness.
Crude or Profane Language
Drug and Alcohol Content
Other Negative Elements
Fourteen-year-old Nick Caden is less than thrilled when his family decides to vacation at Deadwood Canyon Ghost Town in the Rockies. He can't think of anything less entertaining than a fake Wild-West village with actors and other touristy gimmicks. Even on the family's arrival, Nick finds himself in a barn with a video projection of Jesse James. Things take an interesting turn, however, when Nick discovers a dead body. By the time he can tell the marshal what he's seen, the body has vanished.
No one but Nick seems convinced a murder has occurred. Partially to placate Nick and give him something to do on the trip, his parents urge the marshal to let their son investigate. Nick and his friends back home have a hobby of using online investigative tools to solve murder cases. They gather data from real crimes and run them through an online algorithm, and they sometimes fact check TV crime shows. The marshal deputizes Nick and invites him to poke around.
Nick isn't sure whom he can trust. The marshal's niece, Annie, always seems to be around when Nick is following a lead. The actor playing Jesse James was competing for a movie role with the alleged dead man, Billy the Kid, so he tops Nick's suspect list. The marshal himself may have owed Billy a large sum of money. And rumor has it that the elderly Wyatt Earp's drinking problem causes him to behave erratically.
Nick and Annie sneak up to the graveyard at night, where they see a man bury what appears to be a body. Nick continues to hunt for concrete evidence he can offer the marshal. The marshal's deputy talks to Nick about Wyatt's drinking and urges Nick to look for evidence against the old man in an abandoned mine. Nick and Annie get trapped in the mine, where they discover the rattlesnake-bitten body of Jesse James. When they're rescued, further investigation reveals James had been knocked unconscious prior to his snakebite. This time, there's no question a murder has taken place. Nick urges the marshal to exhume the body that he and Annie saw in the cemetery. It turns out to be the body of a bear. The marshal asks Nick and his family to leave before the boy causes any more trouble and bad publicity. Before going, Nick makes another trip to the mine. The deputy is there, holding a gun to Annie's head. Nick realizes Billy the Kid, like the deputy, had discovered gold in the mine. The deputy killed Billy so he wouldn't have to share the plunder. Nick gets the deputy's confession on tape, Annie is saved and Nick becomes a hero.
Nick reads in his hotel-issue Gideon Bible about another murder involving a missing body. He decides to investigate the death of a man called Jesus, and he prepares to fly to Tel Aviv to visit the Garden of Gethsemane.
Nick isn't a person who prays, so he's disturbed when he recalls screaming out to God for help in a dream. Nick finds a Gideon Bible in his room marked up with yellow highlighter. He wonders whether the highlighted verses are code about the murders or whether someone is trying to warn him that ghosts, spirits and demons are real. Wyatt isn't sure what to believe about the Bible. He says some think we're cursed because of a wrong turn made a long time ago that we're still paying for. He hopes there are second and third chances, because God knows he needs them.
As Nick prepares to leave the ghost town, Annie gives him a silver cross. She says it's not for good luck, but for a good life. Nick says the family is headed to Dallas next. He's contacted a theologian there who is going to explain more to him about a man (Jesus) who was supposedly murdered, and the body went missing. Nick's final segment tells readers he's preparing to board a plane to Tel Aviv as he continues to hunt for evidence about this Jesus person.
Other Belief Systems
Nick wonders if a nightmare he's had is a premonition. He shows his sister, Wendy, one highlighted passage in the Gideon Bible, which he says is about ghosts and dead people communicating with witches and mummies and coming out of tombs like Night of the Living Dead. (The verse is about people being raised to life after Jesus' resurrection.) Nick also shows her a section about a group of guys eating flesh and drinking blood. Mom walks in, and Wendy tells her that Nick is starting to believe in ghosts. She replies with distaste that he shouldn't necessarily believe everything he reads in that book. She says back then, people knew much less about science and the workings of the world. In her experience, she says, you can't have a reasonable debate with someone who takes the Bible literally. You'll come across looking like an over-educated elitist. She continues that it isn't the Bible itself that bothers her but what it does to people. She says it seems to make people lose the ability to reason and think for themselves. She tells him that there's no way to prove whether the Bible is true or whether there's a God. She says in the end, it's a matter of believing something you can't prove. She thinks Nick, of all people, would have trouble with that.
Wyatt Earp warns Nick about the Native American burial ground, saying people have seen and heard strange things there like campfires being snuffed out, animals acting strange and phantom fogs rolling in. He says if he were going to investigate spooks, that's where he'd go. In talking about his beliefs after his wife's death, Wyatt says people tried to tell him whatever he believed was fine as long as it made him feel better.
The marshal says he's not one to believe in ghosts, witches and curses, but he's starting to think Nick has put some kind of jinx on the town. Nick tells Wendy it's because of her infatuation with the occult and gothic myths that he was able to solve the case.
None. Nick does see blood a few times when he finds the bodies of murder victims. The descriptions are not gory or graphic.
Annie kisses Nick on the forehead. When Nick and Annie are trapped in the mine, Annie snuggles up to Nick and holds his hand. Nick says that a guy can't trust girls, at least not when they want something from you, because they get all soft and gushy.
If your children have read this book or someone has read it to them, consider these discussion topics:
- What does Nick initially believe about God and the Bible?
- How does he respond to Wyatt Earp's conviction that every man has to find the truth on his own?
- What does Nick do and where does he go in search of truth?
Even if you can't fly around the world, what are some ways you can learn more about the truth of God and the authenticity of the Bible?
What does Nick's mom say about the Bible and those who believe it?
- What do you think of her comments about believers?
- How might you better show others God's love so others don't feel like Nick's mom?
Illegal behavior: Nick trespasses in an old mine. He pops the lock on a car, explaining to readers how he did it and how simple it was.
Drinking/alcoholism: The deputy tells Nick that Wyatt Earp has a secret drinking problem that makes him behave erratically. In the end, when Nick learns it was only a rumor, Wyatt gives him a friendly chiding for believing things without proof. He tells Nick that the lies we believe about ourselves and others are the real ghosts that haunt us in life.
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Readability Age Range
12 to 14
Zonderkidz, a trademark of Zondervan Publishers
Selah Award for Young Adult Fiction, 2013