Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Ellen Raskin

The Westing Game
by Ellen Raskin
Recommended Age: 10+

I enjoyed this 1979 Newbery-Medal-winner when I was a child, and I enjoyed it again as an adult - when it arrived in a boxful of good books sent by a friend as a surprised gift. Its author styled it a “puzzle-mystery.” It certainly is: fast-paced, full of humor and frank observation of a variety of characters, a touch of pathos, and the sort of complexity that causes words like “madcap” to be coined, it satisfies you whether you want to be puzzled, kidded, moved, or simply told a neat story.

The Westing Game begins with Sam Westing, a paper-products magnate who went into seclusion after his daughter drowned herself, his wife left him, and a car accident left him permanently disfigured. In the new apartment building next door to his mansion, a group of people seemingly with nothing in common are gathered by a wily real estate agent. And when Westing’s dead body is found on Halloween Night, the people in the building - even the ones who only work there - are named as beneficiaries in his will. With two hundred million at stake, that’s quite a lucky break for sixteen perfect strangers!

The catch is, the will is more of a contest than a give-away. Westing claims (in his last will and testament) that his life was ended by one of his sixteen heirs, and he promises to give his fortune to whoever solves the mystery. What’s more, he divides them into teams, supplies them with cash and very enigmatic clues, and lets them work on the mystery until, at some set date, his lawyer calls them together to find out who wins.

The result is something between the ultimate party mixer and a brew of suspicions. Whodunit, anyway? Was it the flippant foot-doctor or his uppity wife, their Barbie-doll older daughter, or their shin-kicking horror of a younger daughter? Was it the aspiring-writer son of the Greek café owners, or his crippled bird-watching brother? Maybe the secretary who uses crutches to get attention; or the dressmaker whose smile hides a deep sadness from her past; or the frustrated Chinese restauranteur who really wants to be an inventor - while his wife wants to go back to China and his son wants to run in the Olympics. Don’t forget the fanatically religious housekeeper; the obnoxious, elderly delivery-boy; the know-it-all plastic surgeon; and the hard-drinking doorman who holds a grudge against old Mr. Westing.

All this with weird clues on top, and you have quite a mystery already. Throw in a blizzard, a bookie, a burglar, and a bomber, some devious twists and red herrings, and the marvelous way the partners in the game change each others' lives, and you have more than just a puzzle-mystery. You have a story about how a bunch of unhappy, misfit people find a place that fits - together. This is good. This is very good.

No comments: