In the last two years the teens in my local book club have improved their recommendations for me. As we have gotten to know each other better, they have been able to make more interesting and appropriate requests for future book clubs. Over the last few months, at every meeting, someone renews the call for a “Mystery” or “Detective” series of clubs. Invariably, someone follows that with an admonition that I must read The Westing Game by Ellen Raskin.
I am very reticent about reading books the kids recommend because I do not want to have to tell them what I really think of their beloved choices. More often than not, I am underwhelmed by the suggested titles. And, as long as they aren’t recommending anything objectionable, I hate to throw ice water on their enthusiasm. So, it was with trepidation that I approached this book.
Before I tracked down the Audible version, I did a little research. Reviews mostly went something like this: I loved this book when I was a child and I enjoyed returning to it as an adult. Or, I wish that I had read this book as a child, I think it would have been a favorite of mine. And, the nine-year-old me would have thought this brilliant, the adult me found it satisfactory. And so, I approached this book expecting to like it well enough to pass along my commendation, but probably not well enough to seriously consider it for a book club.
I was pleasantly surprised to be wrong. I love it when that happens!
The first few chapters are a bit slow, and Raskin introduces too many characters too quickly. Before starting, I posted on my Facebook wall that I was reading the book and some friends chimed in about how much they love the character Turtle. I am glad they did because my first impression of the tomboy wasn’t great. More than a bit like Ramona Quimby, Turtle is rude and bratty in the beginning. The boys are equally rude and a bit crass. And then, the “delivery boy” who is in his sixties was too old and too strange an addition for my taste. I do understand that oftentimes the drama of a story comes from the personal growth of the characters. That said, the opening was just too clumsy and crass for me. It felt like a 1980s after school sitcom where you aren’t sure how moral it is all going to be. Mercifully, the opening is the only substantial weakness of the story overall.
Once the dead body is discovered and it is clear that this is going to be a murder mystery, the story quickly turns into something very enjoyable. Even better than just a murder mystery, the reading of the will indicates that there are millions of dollars to be won if the assembled characters can determine who among them is the murderer. At once it is a little Agatha Christie, a little Clue, and a bit Nancy Drew. And, it is delightful.
Ellen Raskin confessed to her editor that she wrote The Westing Game with no clear idea how it was going to end or even come together. She allowed her writing process to reveal to her the story that wanted to be told, otherwise, she said, it would be too boring to write. This story is exceedingly complex with many red herrings. How she kept it all straight is a wonder to me! The complexity, however, is another small weakness. Sometimes it feels complex for the sake of being complex instead of being necessarily so. Or, at a minimum, it feels unnecessarily chaotic. As a puzzle person myself, I like to try to sort out mysteries as I am reading. This one felt like it could have ended any which way depending on the author’s mood while writing. I suppose some might say that makes this story all the richer – it isn’t at all predictable. I concede that that is a fair point. I am choosing to feel entertained by the twists and turns rather than cheated by the tricks the author uses.
The story is truly interesting. And, the characters are likeable. Even the unlikeable ones. Some have criticized the characters as being one dimensional and lacking any real substance. I chose to read this book with Agatha Christie and Clue in the back of my mind. As such, these characters had a great deal more depth than others in this genre. I suspect that the complaint comes from the fact that something about her writing feels like A Wrinkle in Time (despite the fact that they are very different genres), so these characters pale in comparison to those. I really can’t explain why I would compare the two stories, they are nothing alike, but something about them feels like it comes from the same place. Regardless, for the genre, I thought the characters were just right.
While the story is creative, entertaining, and intelligent, it also has a lovely moral. The characters do grow out of their brattiness, selfishness, self-centeredness, and meanness into more kind, neighborly, and community-minded folks. Some of the characters reveal more capacity for growth than others and that is satisfying to watch unfold.
Other Books Like The Westing Game:
- Longer and more complex than The Marvelous Adventures of Alvin Fernald, this is for a slightly older audience than Alvin.
- Much more wholesome than The Great Brain.
- Smarter and more moral than The Mad Scientists Club
- Reminds me of The Mysterious Benedict Society, but I like the inter-generational component of Westing Game better.
- Much more complex than Henry Reed, Inc. but would probably appeal to the same audience.
Parents may wish to know some things:
- There is a scene with drunkenness. It is not condoned, in fact the drunk is humiliated, but it is a feature of one scene.
- At one point in the mystery, it is hinted that two people who are married to other people are having an affair with each other. This is subtle and would likely go over the heads of most young readers. It is not there to be scandalous, but more as a red herring.
- This book is clearly not “Christian Literature.” It is very secular with very secular values. It is not offensive, but it does lack the warmth and wholesomeness of other books we often review.