I am not sure if there is anything else that I can add to what has been written about the Westing Game that has not been said before. I shall try my best, however. I just feel that our Bimonthly theme on Whodunit/Mystery/Suspense would not be complete without including this Winner of the Newbery Medal written by the incomparable Ellen Raskin.
I feel, though, that my enjoyment of the book has been constantly interrupted by lesson preparation, conference travels, and life in general. Imagine watching a fast-paced film, only to be rudely interrupted by phone calls, long email exchanges, the doorbell, the laundry, and so forth. Yet despite the fact that I only managed to steal a few minutes of my time each night before going to bed to read the book – I was able to still follow the plot as it thickens – and surprisingly, the cast of characters managed to grow on me (Turtle Wexler in particular), without me realizing it.
The Dare. The Crime. The Suspects. Six letters were delivered by a 62-year old delivery ‘boy’ to the would-be tenants of Sunset Towers (which faced strangely to the East). Barney Northrup, the real estate agent with the slick black moustache, gave the families/individuals a deal that they could not resist. Soon enough, all the apartments
were taken, and the perfect crime about to take place.
Who were these people, these specially selected tenants? They were mothers and fathers and children. A dressmaker, a secretary, an inventor, a doctor, a judge. And, oh yes, one was a bookie, one was a burglar, one was a bomber, and one was a mistake.
Unbeknownst to them, they are all linked together through their unwanted or unlikely connection to old man Westing whose mansion is conveniently located close to Sunset Towers. Who is Old Man Westing?
“… most folks say he’s dead. Long-gone dead. They say his corpse is still up there in that big old house. They say his body is sprawled out on a fancy Oriental rug, and his flesh is rotting off those mean bones, and maggots are creeping in his eye sockets and crawling out his nose holes” - from Otis Amber, the delivery boy (pp. 6-7)
This has become an urban legend around town, and naturally the 13 year old shin-kicking, braids-a-flying, stock-market genius Turtle Wexler took the dare (make that double dare) to stay in the Mansion .. for a fee, of course. Her resolve was strengthened upon hearing that people who go to the mansion leave the place screaming their heads off, half-crazy, mumbling two words incoherently “purple waves.”
Turtle’s motivation: two dollars a minute she stays in the Westing Mansion. For twenty-five minutes she would be able to pay for a subscription to The Wall Street Journal. Not bad for a hobby, right? Little did Turtle know that instead of seeing ‘purple waves’ she would be seeing Old Man Westing’s deceased body instead (cue loud shrieks as Turtle tears out of the mansion).
What is even more odd is the fact that sixteen people from Sunset Towers have been identified as possible beneficiaries of a 200 million dollar inheritance from Old Man Westing. Problem: one of the sixteen people is Westing’s Murderer. This ‘tricky, divisive Westing game’ has been succinctly summarized by Raskin:
In his will Sam Westing implied (he did not state, he implied) that (1) he was murdered, (2) the murderer was one of the heirs, (3) he alone knew the name of the murderer, and (4) the name of the murderer was the answer to the game. (pp. 47)
What makes the book Timeless. Rather than go into explicit detail about the plot, the
narrative, the characters – I figured that I would just synthesize the things that I love most about the book, and hope that they make sense.
In the Introduction written by Ann Durell, she described her friendship with Ellen Raskin and how the latter candidly noted that she honestly didn’t know what children’s books were like. Editor Ann Durell shared that:
I never even tried to edit her ‘for children.’ She was too wise, too funny, too ingenious – and therefore unique – to tamper with in that way. She said that she wrote for the child in herself, but for once I think she was wrong. I think she wrote for the adult in children. She never disrespected them or ‘wrote down,’ because she didn’t know how.
This sums up exactly what I love the most about The Westing Game. It is living testament that a mystery/whodunit suspense book does not have to be filled with flare, fanfare, and superficial hoopla to get the young ones hooked. Codes, anagrams, one-word clues, strategic chess moves, stock market prices, multiple disguises – and a sense of family that rings true – should be more than sufficient. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised at the profound emotional content that hit me somewhere at the end of the book. More often than not – in novels like these you get sidetracked with all the unraveling of code and clues, the characters become flat and unidimensional. In the Westing Game, I fell in love with the ridiculously wealthy (and cunning) Samuel Westing – and my heart deeply moved by Turtle Wexler, and a strange affinity to Berthe Erica Crowe. I’d leave it to you to discover who they are – as you should. This is a timeless book that is perfect for a dinner discussion among family members or friends.
Resources for the Westing Game. I found quite a number of resources for The Westing Game – being an award winning book does have its perks. This weblink contains an exhaustive set of notes as prepared by Bestnotes – it contains chapter summaries with notes, detailed character and plot structure analysis – anything that you need to write an extensive book review or a study guide for teachers – you got it here. Best of all, it’s for free. Apparently, other websites offer this for a certain amount. The Westing Game Manuscript contains actual original spreads and Ellen Raskin’s notes giving the reader an insider’s view point about how her ideas evolved. This weblink on the other hand contains a discussion guide from Scholastic and even a printable downloadable pdf link for the Student Handout.
The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. Speak, An Imprint of Penguin Group, USA, Inc. First published in 1978. Book borrowed from the NIE Library.