The Westing Game
By Ellen Raskin
E.P. Dutton, 1978
The Westing Game is a classic children's book, a murder mystery and the 1979 Newbery Medal winner, along with a scattering of other awards including the 1978 Boston Globe - Horn Book Award for Best Fiction for Children and the 1979 Banta Award for writing excellence.
This is the story of 16 people who are unexpectedly named as possible heirs to a $200 million fortune -- on the condition that they can solve the mystery of who killed the millionaire.
These sixteen people have only one thing in common: one month previously, they had all been rented apartments or given jobs in a brand new 'luxury' apartment complex right next door to the Westing estate (long abandoned). This was all clearly orchestrated, although this is known only to the reader and a few characters. No one, however, has any idea how Samuel W. Westing knew he would be murdered, why he chose this group of potential heirs, or what in the world they are supposed to do now.
Well, technically, they know exactly what they are supposed to do now. They are to pair up with their assigned partners, take the four words left to them (and the $10,000 check left to them in compensation for playing), and use these clues to to 'win' the Westing game. And since no team's clues make any sense, they are all pretty sure that the next step involves finding out what the other team's clues are, by hook or by crook.
With 16 main characters and a small supporting cast, this is a very complexly plotted book, particularly considering that it is a children's book written before the time that 'young adult' was recognized as a demographic. We get to know all sixteen of the heirs quite well, and we also know that there is a lot we don't know -- as the author tells us from the start, one is a bomber, one is a bookie, one is a thief, and one is a mistake. But we don't know which is which, and even when we do learn it is only after some false leads.
The entire book is written in short snapshots, about 1-2 pages in length on average, in which we see what is happening with one character or set of characters. These are arranged chronologically and are generally grouped in time and space, so there isn't too much jumping around as far as the overall plot goes, but the constant switching of viewpoints both gives the reader a false sense of omniscience and makes the comparatively short work (under 200 pages) appear somewhat epic.
While this is a great book on many levels, it really shines in two areas. First, it has an impressive amount of character development for such a short novel, and for a children's book. We learn that the annoying characters are actually likable characters when we get to know them, and that the likable characters have definite flaws -- and that all of the characters are real people, which may include histories of alcoholism, lost loved ones, and unexpected sacrifices. And secondly, this book is an excellent example of how a ridiculously complex plot can work well, and can work well even when the author is intentionally hiding a lot of very important information from the reader.
While overall the book is excellent, as a child, and to some extent as an adult, it has one flaw that always makes me remember it as a little worse than it is. It has a very long epilogue, spanning perhaps 12 years. It is somewhat odd to see the futures of the people we just read about in such detail flash by so quickly, and given the age of some of the characters, this includes some deaths. It also contains a few too-neat endings, although as a child I found those entirely appropriate. While this chapter lasts only ten pages, it gives the disconcerting effect of pulling the reader out of a comfortably solved murder mystery and into a montage of mixed feelings.
AR level 5.3