The Westing Game

Author: Ellen Raskin

Type: Fiction, novel

Published: 1978

I read it: September 2016


I first heard about The Westing Game from some list that was like “Five Books to Read if You Like the Movie Clue” or somesuch. Then I happened to see it at the thrift store and snagged it, and then a friend saw me add it on Goodreads and said he remembered it from his youth and was curious how it held up. (Plus, I’ll read anything with a  Newbery Medal on it.)

Published in the late 70s, the plot presumably takes place at that time. A range of characters with various backgrounds are somewhat inexplicably persuaded to all be tenants in a single apartment building just in time for a grand game to begin (this miracle of timing might be the most wondrous trick of the book). The people are interesting enough, and include wives and husbands, fathers and sons, restaurant owners and doormen, judges and sisters. Each is the potential heir to the fortune of Sam Westing, who dies in a mansion that’s in sightline to the apartment complex.

While the corny tagline on the cover—”What wouldn’t you do for a cool $200 million?”—hints at brutal backstabbings, the action is a bit more subtle and social than all that. There are a couple “bombings” of homegrown explosives that I’m not sure are really explicitly pinned on any one culprit. Otherwise, it’s a race based around a word puzzle, and the potential heirs simply try to dupe (or emotionally manipulate) each other to get shreds of the clues. I suppose the generally non-violent style is what earns the book its YA label, though beyond that I can’t see how this attempt differs all that much from an Agatha Christie novel.

But I’m just not sure of the attempt. Raskin is a skilled author with a clear picture of where she wants to go, but some thread is lacking here. The obvious downfall is the point of view. I’m always a stickler about POV in general, but this book specifically uses such an omniscient perspective that the reader gets yanked from page to paragraph to sentence with hardly a transition. So when the chapters, or even sections, are not reliably from the perspective of any one character, the feeling remains all surface. You can play along with the mystery, I suppose, but you probably wouldn’t lose anything by simply flipping to the last few pages.

I’d like to hear from mystery fans or those who had read this book when they were the target age. Does The Westing Game do what you expect it to do? For me, I’ll have to tell my friend that coming in cold as an adult, the book held little thrill.

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