*The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. Dutton Children’s Books, 1978. 182 pages
One-line summary: Ellen Raskin’s classic “puzzle mystery,” 1979 Newbery winner, is still the best example of the genre, with interesting twists and wise character analysis.
Six families moved into Sunset Towers when it opened in July. Now winter is approaching and with it the news that Sam Westing, the owner of Sunset Towers as well as a $200 million paper-products business, has moved into the house next door. In fact, he might even have died there. So why is smoke coming from the chimney? “Turtle” Wexler, age 11, takes a bet to go investigate and discovers the cold corpse of Sam Westing lying in his own bed next to a copy of his will. That’s odd—not to mention terrifying. But even odder is the fact that Turtle is a beneficiary of the will, along with almost every other resident of Sunset Towers. Furthermore, in his will Sam Westing claims that his life was taken—by one of them! Each of the sixteen heirs is paired with a partner and each pair receives $10,000 and a set of clues. The one who solves the murder will receive the entire Westing Paper fortune. Sam himself forestalls their objections:
Senseless, you say? Death is senseless yet makes way for the living. Life, too, is senseless unless you know who you are, what you want, and which way the wind blows.
On to “the Westing Game,” which will solve the mystery. It’s a little difficult to keep all these heirs straight at first, but Raskin had such a gift for characterization they soon come to seem like friends. Or at least acquaintances, because not all are admirable or even likeable. Each has his (or her) own issues and hangups, which were relevant to the seventies (when the book was published) but also remarkably current. The Game is real, with tricky details and clues an alert reader can try to catch, but even if you don’t want to work your brain that much, it’s fascinating to see relationships and personalities develop. Everyone has at least two sides. And one of them has four. On the way to solving the mystery they all will learn a little more about themselves, and what they want, and which way the wind blows, and the reader will be glad to have been along for the ride.
Overall Value: 5 (out of 5)
- Moral/worldview value: 4
- Artistic value: 5
Categories: Mystery, Middle Grades, Award Winners, Starred Review