A kid discovers the identity of his depressed town’s anonymous benefactor and ends up learning some secrets about himself.
Eleven-year-old Sam Brattle, embittered at having the lousiest Christmas ever—and with a heart transplant and extensive history of larceny behind him—is blackmailed by his mysterious neighbor into taking on the role of Nickel Bay’s homegrown secret Santa, the titular Nickel Bay Nick. Wealthy Mr. Wells has stealthily been distributing $100 bills around town at Christmastime for years, boosting the spirits and fortunes of its economically discouraged citizens. This year, laid up with a broken leg and possessing a weighty dossier of Sam’s crimes, which threaten to remove Sam from his struggling single dad’s care, Mr. Wells needs someone crafty and nimble-fingered to do the deed for him—i.e., Sam, who can’t afford to refuse. What ensues adds up to a fast-paced adventure, narrated by Sam in the first person, that’s filled with humor, excitement, some shady characters, secrets, Sam’s growing maturity and some deep emotional pain. There’s a real cinematic feel here—Pitchford also writes for the screen and stage—and there’s a certain amount of implausibility, predictability and coincidence, yet these contrivances don’t mar this well-written tale. Sam’s a great, well-realized kid, and readers will root for him every step of the way. A surprising, poignant twist at the end explains Mr. Wells’ true motives for involving Sam and brings about a satisfying, uplifting finale.
Crime does pay off—to the benefit of others—in this enjoyable novel. (Fiction. 9-12)