The sun sets in the west (just about everyone knows that), but Sunset Towers faced east. Strange!
The opening paragraph of Ellen Raskin's wonderful children's mystery novel, The Westing Game, quoted from memory. It's the story of sixteen people, living together, competing to gain the fortune of dead paper magnate Sam Westing, as per the terms of his unorthodox will.
But the stakes are higher than Westing's $200,000,000 fortune: according to Westing's will, the heir will be the one who finds his murderer - who is also one of the players. Twelve of the contestants live in the aforementioned Sunset Towers apartment building, and the others are closely associated with the building. So the fifteen real contestants are living with a murderer in their midst. And of these fifteen? "One was a bookie, one was a burglar, one was a bomber, and one was a mistake." One of the apartments had been rented to the wrong person.
Into this game these sixteen people are thrown suddenly, assigned into pairs that are revealed as oddly appropriate by the end of the game. They attempt to decipher vague, seemingly meaningless clue words given to them on scraps of paper, and scheme to steal each others' clues and decipher the strange will instructing them in their search. Some of them have well-known or obvious connections to the Westing family, some of them keep their relation to the family secret, and perhaps some don't know it at all. But each person (except the mistake) was chosen and paired quite deliberately.
So who are these people?
Madame Sun Lin Hoo "stared longingly into the boundless gray distance as if far, far on the other side of Lake Michigan lay China."
Madame Hoo, wife of restaurateur James Shin Hoo, speaks only Chinese, and cooks at his restaurant. Rumor has it James married her for her hundred-year-old sauce recipe. She is a beautiful, "inscrutable" (in the insensitive words of contestant Grace Wexler) woman, seemingly alone in Chicago. Her partner is Jake Wexler, a podiatrist and the lonely husband of Grace Wexler, and father of Angela and Turtle Wexler, helplessly drawn into Grace's social-climbing and leading a secret career on the side.
Turtle Wexler, the "braided kicking tortoise", is the younger daughter of Jake and Grace Wexler, apparently thus yclept by her mother because of how she looked as a child. She is the geek-chick heroine of the story, a child prodigy when it comes to the stock market, and is feared by the other contestants because of her habit of kicking shins.
Her partner is Flora Baumbach, a poor, divorced dressmaker, her only child dead years ago. Flora has a continuous "elfin" smile, perhaps from years of serving her customers, perhaps to hide the tragedy that leaves her alone in her old age.
Christos Theodorakis, younger child of the Theodorakis family, is hobbled by a disease that leaves him in a wheelchair, unable to speak normally, but still allows him to pursue his interest in birdwatching. His partner is D. Denton Deere, future doctor of plastic surgery, and fiancé of Angela Wexler, Turtle's older sister. Dr. Deere is as shallow as Grace Wexler, his future mother-in-law, who dotes upon him; he wonders if he was paired with Chris in order to give free medical advice.
Alexander McSouthers, employed by Sunset Towers as a doorman, is an ex-employee of Sam Westing. He is an intelligent man, although he possesses only an eighth-grade education. He is quite devoted to his partner, Josie-Jo Ford, who is "the first black, the first woman, to have been elected to a judgeship in the state" because she is "the biggest tipper in Sunset Towers." Judge Ford is single, and always prepared to defend her achievements, perhaps out of guilt that Sam Westing had financed her education in order to have a valuable ally to protect his sometimes shady business practices - although Judge Ford's honesty would never permit her to serve in such a capacity.
Grace Windsor Wexler, (the social-climbing wife of Jake Wexler and mother of Angela and Turtle), was once an attractive, fun-loving woman. She has fallen into conspicuous consumption and pretentions of being an interior decorator, allowing her substantial business acumen to go to waste. She dotes on her beautiful older daughter Angela, and ignores the intelligent and potentially very successful Turtle.
She is rarely on good terms with her partner, James Shin Hoo (husband of Madame Sun Lin Hoo and father of Douglas Hoo) owns an unsuccessful Chinese restaurant, grumbles constantly, worries about getting another ulcer, and makes no secret of his connection to Westing: one of his inventions had been stolen by Westing Paper Products years before.
Berthe Erica Crowe runs the Good Salvation Soup Kitchen, dresses in black, and preaches the gospel, perhaps atoning for some sin in her own past. Her connection to the Westing family is unknown beyond her employment as a cleaning women in Sunset Towers. Her partner, and eventually friend, Otis Amber, is a mentally retarded delivery boy who wears an aviator's cap. He helps her in the soup kitchen and cares for her, even though she never seems to care much about herself.
Theo Theodorakis (older brother of birdwatcher Chris) writes down brother as his career; between helping his parents run the Theodorakis Coffee Shop and caring for Chris, he is as lonely as the other contestants; he has little time to pursue his interests in writing and chess.
His partner is Douglas Hoo, a phenomenal runner (though his interests are discouraged by his father, who constantly tells him to "Go study!") Doug Hoo feels unfortunate to be the object of a crush on the part of Turtle, and he shows little interest in the game.
Sydelle Pulaski, in her claim the "Secretary to the President" — she omits that he's the president of Schultz Sausages — is thrilled to live in Sunset Towers with the rich and successful. But no one so much as invites her to tea, until she begins to fake a degenerative disease — and has the wits to record, in shorthand, the will as it is read, since none of the players are permitted to consult a copy of it. She hand-paints crutches to match her outfit, and declares her intention to make the best of whatever time she has left.
She is partnered with Angela Wexler, the "sweet, pretty thing" promised to Denton Deere — perhaps this sentence sums up the feelings of the other characters towards her. Angela doesn't know what she wants for herself, but her mother is glad to oblige — and proud to think that soon, there will be two doctors in the family. And won't "Angela Deere" be a precious name?
What makes the book so wonderful
The plot is convoluted; nothing is as it appears in the book, and I'm sure if I read it now for the first time I would be surprised by the ending. But the characters are what drives it; each starts out the book alone and confused, but by the end they are close friends with their partners and each has received some sort of redemption. At the same time, they are all fascinating people, and the reader can't help but be drawn into their lives.
The other character
The non-character of Sam Westing, who drives the work, is a continual presence in the minds of the characters, particularly the judge, who worries about the money she believes she 'owes' him in exchange for her education. Her childhood as the daughter of a servant in his household, has convinced her that he is an utterly unscrupulous man, and she works to make sure that the game can't be won, convinced that it is a plot against one of the players.
Grace Wexler claims relation to Westing (something the other characters doubt) but her partner, sometime inventor James Hoo, makes no bones about his hatred for Westing and his feeling that part of Westing's fortune is his by rights. Alexander 'Sandy' McSouthers also does little to hide his bitterness at his former employer; Westing is beloved by his community but hated by almost all of the players. By the end, most of their opinions change.
Many of the characters have their own secret pasts, and many of them are not what they appear. The game proves to have been highly orchestrated by its dead organizer, and some of the characters in the story are his plants, there to ensure the game moves in a certain direction. But the final goal of Westing is unclear — if he anticipated murder, a man of his means could have protected himself. And how could he have known for certain who his killer would be?
In the end, as the various questions raised by Westing's will are revealed, each of the characters is changed by the experience. The book is the story of an event that changes the lives of all of its wounded participants for the better; Westing's most important bequest to his "sixteen nieces and nephews" is the happiness and new friends they are left with. When the time comes at the end of the book for the pairs to name their guesses and find out who won, Chris and Denton sum up the impact Westing had on their lives: "Our answer is: Mr. Westing was a good man."
The book has a lovable, human heroine in Turtle, and it is filled with an optimism regarding the human spirit: no matter what you've done you can, like Westing, do good in the end, and change others' lives for the better. Even the characters who might be hard to like much become sympathetic, and even if they had been sad, lost individuals, the Westing Game restores them by the end.
The Westing Game was one of my favorite books as a child, and I still reread it from time to time. It won the Newberry Award and quite deservedly so, as it's one of the best and most sophisticated children's books I've ever read, particularly in regard to its large and complex cast of characters.