Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game – Mystery of a Lifetime

Myra here.

I am not sure if there is anything else that I can add to what has been written about the Westing Game that has not been said before. I shall try my best, however. I just feel that our Bimonthly theme on Whodunit/Mystery/Suspense would not be complete without including this Winner of the Newbery Medal written by the incomparable Ellen Raskin.

I feel, though, that my enjoyment of the book has been constantly interrupted by lesson preparation, conference travels, and life in general. Imagine watching a fast-paced film, only to be rudely interrupted by phone calls, long email exchanges, the doorbell, the laundry, and so forth. Yet despite the fact that I only managed to steal a few minutes of my time each night before going to bed to read the book – I was able to still follow the plot as it thickens – and surprisingly, the cast of characters managed to grow on me (Turtle Wexler in particular), without me realizing it.

The Dare. The Crime. The Suspects. Six letters were delivered by a 62-year old delivery ‘boy’ to the would-be tenants of Sunset Towers (which faced strangely to the East). Barney Northrup, the real estate agent with the slick of the best beard oil on a black moustache, gave the families/individuals a deal that they could not resist. Soon enough, all the apartments

Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

were taken, and the perfect crime about to take place.

Who were these people, these specially selected tenants? They were mothers and fathers and children. A dressmaker, a secretary, an inventor, a doctor, a judge. And, oh yes, one was a bookie, one was a burglar, one was a bomber, and one was a mistake. 

Unbeknownst to them, they are all linked together through their unwanted or unlikely connection to old man Westing whose mansion is conveniently located close to Sunset Towers. Who is Old Man Westing?

“… most folks say he’s dead. Long-gone dead. They say his corpse is still up there in that big old house. They say his body is sprawled out on a fancy Oriental rug, and his flesh is rotting off those mean bones, and maggots are creeping in his eye sockets and crawling out his nose holes” – from Otis Amber, the delivery boy (pp. 6-7)

This has become an urban legend around town, and naturally the 13 year old shin-kicking, braids-a-flying, stock-market genius Turtle Wexler took the dare (make that double dare) to stay in the Mansion .. for a fee, of course. Her resolve was strengthened upon hearing that people who go to the mansion leave the place screaming their heads off, half-crazy, mumbling two words incoherently “purple waves.”

Lake Michigan – the view from Sunset Towers – click on the image to be taken to the websource.

Turtle’s motivation: two dollars a minute she stays in the Westing Mansion. For twenty-five minutes she would be able to pay for a subscription to The Wall Street Journal. Not bad for a hobby, right? Little did Turtle know that instead of seeing ‘purple waves’ she would be seeing Old Man Westing’s deceased body instead (cue loud shrieks as Turtle tears out of the mansion).

What is even more odd is the fact that sixteen people from Sunset Towers have been identified as possible beneficiaries of a 200 million dollar inheritance from Old Man Westing. Problem: one of the sixteen people is Westing’s Murderer. This ‘tricky, divisive Westing game’ has been succinctly summarized by Raskin:

In his will Sam Westing implied (he did not state, he implied) that (1) he was murdered, (2) the murderer was one of the heirs, (3) he alone knew the name of the murderer, and (4) the name of the murderer was the answer to the game. (pp. 47)

What makes the book Timeless. Rather than go into explicit detail about the plot, the

Ellen Raskin. Click on the image to be taken to the websource.

narrative, the characters – I figured that I would just synthesize the things that I love most about the book, and hope that they make sense. 

In the Introduction written by Ann Durell, she described her friendship with Ellen Raskin and how the latter candidly noted that she honestly didn’t know what children’s books were like. Editor Ann Durell shared that:

I never even tried to edit her ‘for children.’ She was too wise, too funny, too ingenious – and therefore unique – to tamper with in that way. She said that she wrote for the child in herself, but for once I think she was wrong. I think she wrote for the adult in children. She never disrespected them or ‘wrote down,’ because she didn’t know how.

This sums up exactly what I love the most about The Westing Game. It is living testament that a mystery/whodunit suspense book does not have to be filled with flare, fanfare, and superficial hoopla to get the young ones hooked. Codes, anagrams, one-word clues, strategic chess moves, stock market prices, multiple disguises – and a sense of family that rings true – should be more than sufficient. In fact, I was pleasantly surprised at the profound emotional content that hit me somewhere at the end of the book. More often than not – in novels like these you get sidetracked with all the unraveling of code and clues, the characters become flat and unidimensional. In the Westing Game, I fell in love with the ridiculously wealthy (and cunning) Samuel Westing – and my heart deeply moved by Turtle Wexler, and a strange affinity to Berthe Erica Crowe. I’d leave it to you to discover who they are – as you should. This is a timeless book that is perfect for a dinner discussion among family members or friends.

Resources for the Westing Game. I found quite a number of resources for The Westing Game – being an award winning book does have its perks. This weblink contains an exhaustive set of notes as prepared by Bestnotes – it contains chapter summaries with notes, detailed character and plot structure analysis – anything that you need to write an extensive book review or a study guide for teachers – you got it here. Best of all, it’s for free. Apparently, other websites offer this for a certain amount. The Westing Game Manuscript contains actual original spreads and Ellen Raskin’s notes giving the reader an insider’s view point about how her ideas evolved. This weblink on the other hand contains a discussion guide from Scholastic and even a printable downloadable pdf link for the Student Handout.

The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin. Speak, An Imprint of Penguin Group, USA, Inc. First published in 1978. Book borrowed from the NIE Library.

Whodunit Theme for May/June

11 Comments on Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game – Mystery of a Lifetime

  1. This is fascinating! Took me awhile to realize it is a childrens book, but this sounds so…cool, for lack of a better term.
    Rae, Best O’ Books

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  2. I read this after finishing the Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, during my mystery kick and I thought the book would provide a much easier puzzle to solve than the former but I was wrong. I didn’t have a clue as to what the random words mean. This is such a clever mystery book and I was also surprised that I got attached to some of the characters. I particularly like the entire Wexler Family and Theo and Chris as well. 🙂

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    • Hi Tin! I know exactly what you mean, I’ve read both at roughly the same time as well – and surprisingly Larsson’s book is relatively more straightforward than The Westing Game. I had no clue as well as to what the random words could possibly mean.

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  3. I can’t believe I have never read this. Is the game metaphor pervasive throughout? I am heading to the school library tomorrow, to borrow it. I think I will hold out on reading the links you provide, Myra, until I have read it myself.

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  4. So I checked today and, of course, it is missing from the school library, but the librarian promised to put it on her september list *sigh*.

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    • Hi Joanna, awww, that’s too bad! How about your community libraries, any chance of your getting a copy then? The game metaphor is what ties the entire narrative together – without it being too overarching that it gets in the way of character development. The people remain full-bodied and quirky and interesting – other words, they come alive in spite of and despite of the whodunit feel, which I feel makes the book a classic. =) Definitely a must-read.

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  5. Yes, if it has been translated into French, I may find it in Nice library. I can check it out.

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  6. I love The Westing Game! You’re right, no Whodunit Challenge would be complete without this beloved classic! I remember clearly how much I loved this when I was still very young (I wanted to be friends with Turtle) and I’m glad I was still able to find a copy about five years ago. Thanks for a great review. You were able to capture what made The Westing Game such a well-loved book.

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  7. Thank you, thank you, thank you! I facilitate two book clubs for kids. The classics are easy, but I’m always on the look out for good modern books. I think this will work for the girls AND the boys!

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  8. As I write in the summer of 2012, a group of Massachusetts rising 7th-9th students is meeting to read/act the Westing Game. It is a voluntary event and is a total delight. On the fly, my students read the text and convert direct quotes and implied mental quotes into their lines while acting as though they had scripts in their hands. They are remarkably involved and come dressed the second day with hairdos and subtle indications of their characters.

    I have made lots of props (letters to tenants, realistic checks for $10K, game clues in envelopes, messages to be hung in the elevator, a certificate of sanity…) and collected others (stopwatch, doorman’s hat, lawyers’ briefcases, chic glossy high heels, a wheelchair, binoculars, an embroidery bag with actual work-in-progress, a red, white, and blue bunting for the coffin…). From the first page, the classroom furniture is organized to be Sunset Towers apartments, restaurants, and lobby. The Wexlers get to the “third floor” by opening the “elevator doors” which normally just reveal the book cabinet. Later, they assemble at the Westing Mansion around the library table for the reading of the will with the classroom bear mascot adorned on the bunting-draped bier. Another part of the “mansion” has the eight labeled game tables where the mystery becomes even more tense.

    The Westing Game presents an intellectual challenge and delight unlike anything I know of in literature. You don’t have to be ready for a junior Mensa brain breaker, but Raskin’s characters and plot are layered with complex emotions, humor, cultural allusions, and mystery elements that make for a satisfying read on your own and an unforgettable experience as an “act aloud” with a group of friends.

    For any author wanting to write a riveting mystery without the predictable characters an gratuitous violence, Ellen Raskin has done that. Read and weep jealously. She set the bar. The Westing Game is a wonderful book and a fabulous challenge to some creative writer who wants to give another gift to a special genre. I hope he or she is out there and getting to work!

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