The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

Read December 2019
Recommended for middle school detectives
 ★     ★     ★    ★    

The Westing Game is first full-length mystery I remember reading. Well, besides Encyclopedia Brown and Nancy Drew books. But the one mystery that I could still have told you general details about the plot. It might have been the cleverness of the mystery or  it’s absence of gore. It could have been identification with the shin-kicking protagonist, nicknamed ‘Turtle.’ It could have been the clever signals of winds and atmosphere that run throughout the book. Whatever it was, Raskin’s story stayed with me for years.

Opening page:

“The sun sets in the west (just about everyone knows that), but Sunset Towers faced east. Strange!
Sunset Towers faced east and had no towers. This glittery, glassy apartment house stood alone on the Lake Michigan shore five stories high. Five empty stories high.
Then one day (it happened to be the Fourth of July), a most uncommon-looking delivery boy rode around town slipping letters under the doors of the chosen tenants-to-be. The letters were signed Barney Northrup.
The delivery boy was sixty-two years old, and there was no such person as Barney Northrup.”

It is a variation on the manor house mystery, with a very disparate group of people brought together physically. Initially, they are convinced to rent or buy units in the newly constructed Sunset Towers, a small building that has room for a coffee shop, a restaurant and a small office, perfect for further enticing the future tenants. The tenants discover they have something additional in common when they are called together for the reading of Sam Westing’s will. An isolating snowstorm ramps up the tension.

Narration is third person, which is solidly done. Initially, all the characters have aspects that make them seem flawed, or perhaps somewhat unlikable. Interestingly, however, it was probably one of the broadest casts I can remember reading: a black woman who is now a judge, who grew up poor; a Greek family, whose skin is ‘darker’ than the black woman’s (an interesting concept for a young white kid!); a Chinese family, one a recent immigrant; a couple of economically limited white guys; a suburban white family; a single white older woman dressmaker. We pop in and out of most of their heads at some point, which ends up giving the reader more insight than they each have on each other.

There’s accusations in a review or two of racism, but on adult read, I’d say that the racism is all internal to the characters, and Raskin does a solid job of showing how things a certain character might say or do regarding someone else’s race is about their own knowledge deficits. I found only a couple of moments for me that might not pass the twenty-first century sniff test: One of the characters, Chris, has some sort of unspecified physical disability that impairs movement and speech. One of the questionable moments comes up when his brother, Theo, tells someone else that they don’t need to talk to Chris like a baby, “because he’s not retarded.”

I usually avoid reading books from childhood, as I’m afraid of having precious memories tarnished. I thought The Westing Game held up well. It’s told in an omniscient third person, and tends to switch person and location fairly frequently. In the book, the switches are clearly denoted with ****, but it’s the sort of thing that probably won’t translate well to audio, unless it was done with an ensemble cast.

 I think it is definitely a YA, but in the best sense of the word. Many of the techniques it uses are great for people that are younger and haven’t figured some of this out yet; ie. a judge that still has some insecurities, or decides that she will not to compete for the prize, but to protect. The shifts in perspective and time work well for developing empathy–I think each character goes through a redemption arc, and even the one I remember disliking the most–Otis–was shown to be something other than appearance suggested. I ended up searching out a hardcover for my own library, and am glad to have it around.

About thebookgator

avid reader and Goodreads reviewer looking for a home.
This entry was posted in Book reviews, Mystery, young adult and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

4 Responses to The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin

  1. Redhead says:

    This was my favorite book when i was a kid! It was my “comfort book” through middle school and even through high school. Even when I knew scenes by heart, even when i’d remember exactly how the book ended, i’d still reread it over and over, because I just freakin’ loved it.

    i’m terrified to read it again. I don’t want those wonderful memories to be sullied by the fact that i’m a grown up now.

    • thebookgator says:

      I hear your fear! I found it stood the test of time for me, and the majority of GR people seem to agree. I wonder though–it didn’t seem to be a tremendous childhood favorite among the people that reviewed it. I’ve been afraid to read A Wrinkle in Time for the same reason.

  2. shortgirl says:

    This was one of my favorite books as a child and I’ve read it several times since then! I actually got my 11-year-old cousin a copy for Christmas this year.

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