Magic or Madness: Justine Larbalestier
What Books You Would Like to Live In?

The Westing Game: Ellen Raskin

Another book that I read on my trip last week was Ellen Raskin's The Westing Game, originally published in 1978, winner of the Newberry Medal in 1979, and now available in a highly portable 2005 reprint paperback edition. I can't remember if I ever read this book as a child. Re-reading it, I found very faint echoes of familiarity, but it's not a book that I remember (the sad fact of reading too many books too quickly, a vice that I've had since I was a small child).

I thought that this book held up well for being nearly 30 years old. There are very few pop cultural references to distract, and although the gender roles are somewhat dated, most of the characters, especially the female characters, are prepared to stand up for themselves by the end of the story.

This book is a complex and well-thought-out puzzle. It's about a group of potential heirs who are all lured into living in the same small apartment building, which is conveniently located adjacent to a mysterious old mansion. After some time living near one another, the heirs are called to the mansion for the reading of Samuel Westing's will. This highly unconventional will contains two central points. First, Westing accuses one of his heirs of murdering him. Second, he provides (through his lawyer) a series of clues as to who the murderer might be. The idea is for the heirs to pair up, and use the clues to solve the mystery of who murdered Sam Westing.

The remainder of the book consists of the 16 heirs each attempting to solve the mystery, complete with red herrings galore, miscellaneous explosions, and the need to solve various personal problems along the way. The problems of the individual heirs include issues marital discord, health issues, language barriers, career choices, and sibling rivalry.

What makes The Westing Game a children's book is the fact that several of the heirs are teenagers, and one (the hero of the story) is a belligerent 12-year-old girl named Turtle. However, the level of complexity of the mystery easily allows the story to stand up to reading by adults. In fact, I had a bit of difficulty keeping track of all of the characters and plot points, and I might need to read it again sometime soon, to make sure that I didn't miss anything.

The Westing Game reminded me a bit of an Agatha Christie novel, with only the presence of kids as major characters to suggest that it's not intended for an adult audience. The ending is wholly satisfying, including significant character development among the heirs, forgiveness and atonement, the uncovering of a variety of old secrets, and the resolution to the mystery. It's well worth checking out.