The Westing Game – Ellen Raskin

5 out of 5

Go over to your bookshelf, and count all of the books that are not The Westing Game. Throw all of them out. If you’re concerned about maintaining a robust bookshelf, use that count that I helpfully directed you to enact and buy exactly that many more copies of The Westing Game, and populate your shelves thusly. Read (at least) one copy of The Westing Game. You are now officially well read, and can make a snooty face during any conversation on any piece of literature, content in knowing all you need to know from this single book.

Okay, I may be exaggerating, but surely only a little bit. True, The Westing Game has no deeper meanings, per se, to stack against more brain-twisting or moral-quandary-izing lit out there, and author Ellen Raskin takes, like, three victory laps of happy endings in the concluding chapters, but even after 30+ years stuffed with rereading this book – and thus, one would hope, knowing the solution to its murder mystery quite well by now – I never cease to be entertained no several levels: by the complexity of Raskin’s plotting; by the in-your-face but clever nature of its clues; and by the author’s masterful brevity in establishing a whole ensemble of characters of various ages and backgrounds, developing said mystery, and making for an exciting read even once knowing the mystery’s ins and outs, all within less than 200 pages. It’s the ultimate mic drop of books, and while I’ve laughed more at or been made to think harder during plenty of other books, I sincerely don’t know of any others that accomplish so much and so efficiently without shorting some other aspect of the story.

But: as the tenants of Sunset Towers are gifted with apartments in their new residence, then gathered to solve the mystery of the death of their benefactor, Sam Westing, Raskin swirls around these husbands and wives and sons and daughters and doormen and delivery people and ducks in and out of their lives with ease, swapping third and first person points of view mid-sentence without a hiccup, and leading us on a hunt for clues alongside all the tenants, who are promised Westing’s windfall should they solve the crime. It’s the quirky thrill of a Clue game, but with characters who are evolved way past their initial one-word attributes, which is part of the book’s point, I’d say. If anything, as I’ve gotten older, I’ve been more and more impressed at how nuanced Raskin’s insights into these characters are. True, it still all fits into a very traditional model – I wouldn’t call it progressive, necessarily – and there are a couple of lines here and there where I’m not positive what subtext the author was after, but by and large, Raskin adds in all of these little (and not so little) signals and exposed thoughts that create a better capsule study of the human condition than one might find in much more “progressive” literature, especially that which is written for kids.

Not to mislead, though – the puzzle is definitely the thing; the fun of reading the bits and pieces you know are relevant and then being stymied when Raskin is all too willing to point out her red herrings a page later. There are stakes as well: people’s futures are being affected by this mystery, and bombs are going off, and shins are getting kicked.

The Westing Game used to be an at least yearly reread for me, as my busted up copy attests, but this admittedly tapered off into a slower frequency as time went on. On the last several visits, as the book sits between other more “adult” classics on my shelf (clearly not following my own guidelines as stated above), I vacantly note how I don’t hear about this book as often as some of those others, and perhaps pass over it for another year. But when I do pick it back up, paragraphs in I’m reminded how tight the writing is – humorous, and clever, and dense with happenings and ideas without feeling rushed or distracting. Pages in, I’m caught up in the desire to read it all in one sitting, acknowledging my jealousy that I’m likely never going to be able to write at this level of intelligence, and sharpness.

Those multiple victory laps are very much earned. One of the greatest books of all time.