Never Trust a Dead Man

Common Sense Media says

Classic mystery with a touch of magic, dark humor.





What parents need to know

Positive messages

No one in this story is really admirable. Some of the humor is a bit gruesome.


A fight. Selwyn is trapped in a cave with decaying bodies.


An old man leers at a young woman. All of the men leer at a barmaid.

Not applicable
Not applicable
Drinking, drugs, & smoking

Scenes of drinking in a bar.

Parents Need to Know

Parents need to know that the author has a decidedly dark sense of humor. The scene where Selwyn is left to die in a tomb filled with decaying corpses, though leavened with that humor, may still be a bit much for some young readers.

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What's the story?

In a small, medieval village, Selwyn is accused of murdering Farold, his rival for Anora's affections. The townspeople, convinced of his guilt by circumstantial evidence, decide to seal Selwyn in the burial cave with Farold's body (and those of other dead villagers). There he meets Elswyth, a witch seeking \"a lock of hair from a man newly dead\" for a spell. In exchange for a year of service she agrees to free him, and for a few more years of service she agrees to bring back the spirit of Farold to proclaim his innocence.

But Selwyn messes up the spell, and Farold's spirit ends up in the body of a bat. Worse, he doesn't know who killed him. So Selwyn, disguised as a Pilgrim, and Farold, in the body of a bat, head back to the village to try to solve the mystery, bickering with and sniping at each other all the way.

Is it any good?


Selwyn may be the protagonist, but it's Farold (and Elswyth, when she's around) who holds the reader's attention. Selwyn is just the straight-man to Farold's delightful combination of petulance, snide sarcasm, whiny self-centeredness, deviousness, and good sense, all coming out of the mouth of a bat (and later a goldfinch, and then a duck).

Vivian Vande Velde has taken a classic mystery (red herrings, multiple suspects, a man wrongly accused) and added a touch of magic, a bit of the supernatural, and a dark sense of humor. The result is the author's specialty -- lightweight fun from start to finish. The mystery is nicely balanced to provide clues without being too predictable, and when the mystery slows, the humor fills in to keep things humming along.

Families can talk about...

  • Families can talk about the change in the relationship between Selwyn and Farold. Once enemies, they become friends as they work together. How do they overcome their enmity?

Book details

Author:Vivian Vande Velde
Book type:Fiction
Publisher:Harcourt Brace
Publication date:March 29, 2004
Number of pages:194
Publisher's recommended age(s):10 - 14

This review of Never Trust a Dead Man was written by

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  • ON: Content is age-appropriate for kids this age.
  • PAUSE: Know your child; some content may not be right for some kids.
  • OFF: Not age-appropriate for kids this age.
  • NOT FOR KIDS: Not appropriate for kids of any age.

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  • Best: Really engaging; great learning approach.
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  • Not for Kids: Not age-appropriate for kids; not recommended for learning.

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