19/02/2013

The Westing Game (by Ellen Raskin)

A friend lent me this book, as she and her teenagers had all enjoyed it very much. Apparently it’s a considered a classic children’s book in the US although I had not previously heard of it. The author, Ellen Raskin, was a writer and illustrator during the middle of the 20th century.

The Westing Game is not a long book; at under 200 pages I read it in just a few hours, over about three days. It has quite a large cast of characters, in particular sixteen apparently random people who are the ‘heirs’ of a most unusual will...

The book opens with these people being offered low rentals for apartments in ‘Sunset Towers’, a previously empty block. Barney Northrop, who sends out the offers is pretty sure that they will all accept, since their names are already printed on their mailboxes.

There’s the Wexler family: the father a mild podiatrist who has an office in the block, his wife an upwardly mobile snob. They have two daughters: the lovely Angela, engaged to a medical intern, and 13-year-old Turtle who is something of a brat. Any time anyone touches Turtle’s hair, even by accident, she kicks them on the shins.

The other family of four are Mr and Mrs Theodorakis (who barely feature) and their two sons, Theo and Chris. Chris has some kind of muscular disease that limits him to a wheelchair, and affects his speech quite badly, but he’s highly intelligent and particularly interested in birds. Theo is distinguished by being extremely nice.

Then we have the Hoo family: the father a restaurant owner (with his restaurant at the top of the tower); his wife a recent immigrant who speaks almost no English. Mr Hoo has a son, Doug, who is a talented runner.

There are also some single residents: Flora Baumbach, a gushing and elderly dressmaker, Judge Ford, a self-made woman with a keen mind; Sydelle Pulaski, who likes attention and pretends to have a limp.

This mixed bunch of people - other than Theo and Chris’s parents - along with Sandy McSouthers (doorman to the towers), Berthe Crow (cleaner in the block) and Otis Amber (62-year-old delivery man/postman) are called together, a few weeks after settling in, to learn that they are the heirs to the large fortune of Samuel Westing, an eccentric man who lived - at one point - in the nearby Westing Mansion. However, in order to inherit they have to follow some very strange rules, and solve some decidedly odd clues which, its said, will tell them who took his life.

This involves the sixteen heirs being divided into eight pairs, each given four or five printed words and told to find answers. The book then follows them all over the next few days as they discuss their clues and attempt - in various ingenious ways - to determine exactly what Westing wants of them.

So the book is - sort of - a murder mystery, in a light-hearted kind of way. But this is no Agatha Christie. There are few subtle clues dropped, and no red herrings to speak of. It’s fairly obvious that none of the pairs of participants have any idea what their words mean, and that their attempts to solve the puzzle are completely off track. I was quite pleased that I did manage to solve one part of the mystery myself, about half-way through the book, when something about the clues fell into place in my mind. I was hoping that there would be more instances of ‘aha’ moments where I could figure out something else, but that was the only one. The rest followed fairly rapidly, and there was not much that could have been worked out by readers.

The characterisation in this book isn’t great; I was surprised to find that I did manage to keep each of the sixteen main characters fairly clearly in my mind, but that’s because the author chose distinct names, characteristics and professions quite cleverly. Sydelle usually makes some reference to her crutch, Turtle to her braid, or the latest person she has kicked. I did find that Theo and Doug, the two high school seniors (sixth-formers, in UK terms) to be a bit similar, but it didn’t much matter.

As the narrative flitted rapidly from viewpoint to viewpoint, I had no difficulty remembering who was who, but did not find that I actually empathised with any of them. Perhaps the book was too short for real character development, or perhaps it wasn’t meant to be there. Agatha Christie’s books similarly tend to lack three-dimensional people, and her names and characterisitics can make it hard even to remember who is who, sometimes - but Agatha Christie was a genius at plotting. I didn’t feel the same way about Ellen Ruskin.

Still, the story flows well, and there are some mildly amusing moments, particularly during the original reading of the will. Fun to read, but not something I'm likely to read again. Probably more interesting to teens and adults in the US, as some of the references would be meaningless to anyone who had not lived there.

Available in Kindle form as well  as paperback.

Review copyright Sue's Book Reviews, 19th February 2013

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