The Westing Game
Penguin, 1978 216 pgs
Sixteen seemingly unrelated people are hand-picked to move into the new Sunset Towers; a modern apartment building next to the Westing Estate. Eccentric millionaire Sam Westing disappeared under mysterious circumstances years before. The residents of Sunset Towers are very surprised when Westing suspiciously drops dead and they are all gathered together as heirs. The will divides the sixteen people into partnerships of two and each pair is given two one-word clues, along with hidden messages within the wording of the will itself. Each heir is awarded $5,000 with the entire fortune to be given as a prize to whomever can solve the identity of Westing's murderer. The heirs start scrambling to try and solve the puzzle, all while contending with blizzards, bombs exploding, and suspicions about their neighbors. Unexpected bonds are formed and the characters change in ways they (and the readers) didn't anticipate. Finally the heirs are gathered again to solve to mystery and to discover who won the game in a grand finale. One team uncovers the significance behind the one-word clues, but is the person exposed really the murderer? All is not as it seems, identities are revealed, lives are changed, and a winner emerges.
I first discovered the Westing Game when it was still a new book back in seventh grade. My school librarian gave it to me and said it just won a big award and would I please read it and let her know if it was any good. I thought it looked boring (at the time I was obsessed with problem novels by Judy Blume, Norma Fox Mazer, Go Ask Alice, etc) and babyish, but I loved my librarian, so I gave it a whirl. What followed was life changing. I loved this book so much. It opened a whole new world to me: that of clever mysteries. My mystery experience at this point was limited to Nancy Drew and the like. My librarian directed me to other great mysteries and I spent the following summer devouring Agatha Christie, discovering that reading could be exciting and not just a pleasant, yet passive experience. What was progressive for the 1970's may be passe in today's post Harry Potter climate. Does the book still hold up? After just finishing this thirty-eight year old book I offer a resounding YES! I was delightfully surprised at how great the book remains. The Westing Game is what I term as "smart kid fiction". Bright readers will enjoy the twists and turns of the plot, the little puzzles to solve as part of the mystery, and the subtle humor Raskin infuses. Fans of Lemony Snicket and Blue Balliet, as well as chess players, will fall into this book and breath a contented sign when it is over. The mystery isn't conventional and the clues that the players try to decipher do not lead to an actual solution, merely another clue as to the identity of Sam Westing, but there is a satisfying clear-cut winner. All of the characters exhibit growth throughout the story, especially the female ones and Raskin definitely has a feminist agenda. Some of the behaviors of the characters are a bit adult (of the sixteen plus characters, only one is a child) and the story itself is sophisticated for the average young reader. Children new to mysteries may have a hard time keeping the characters apart in their mind as they read, while others will relish the challenge. Raskin offers an epilogue which finds the characters all living "happily ever after lives". These type of epilogues usually bother me, but not in this case. It demonstrates how all of the players were effected by playing the Westing Game and they all were winners; just not of the big money. Sam Westing: kind philanthropist, or menacing manipulator; you decide.