by Ellen Raskin
1978, 185 pages, E.P. Dutton
“I, Samuel W. Westing, declare this to be my last will and testament and do hereby swear that I did not die of natural causes. My life was taken from me—by one of you!”
These are the final words, reaching from beyond the grave, of multimillionaire Samuel Westing, paper company magnate and owner of the luxury apartment building, Sunset Towers. Gathered to hear the reading of Westing’s will are 16 of Sunset Towers’ residents and workers. The group members were puzzled upon being invited to take up residence at the apartment building when it first opened, and they are equally perplexed to discover that one of them is the possible benefactor of Westing’s $200 million fortune. (None of them had ever met the man.) But, here they now sit, being told that they could conceivably be rich. There’s just one catch: they have to solve Westing’s murder.
Part riveting mystery, part solve-it-yourself puzzle, the rules in Ellen Raskin’s “Westing Game” are simple. The 16 possible heirs are split off into pairs and each given a unique set of clues. The pair that discovers who among the 16 suspects is Westing’s killer gets the fortune. Soon, family members, neighbors and co-workers are searching for clues, suspecting everyone and trusting no one—not even their partners, for surely, one of them has been paired with a killer. To make matters worse, someone has started leaving little bombs around the building. As the clock ticks away, tension runs high and relationships become strained. How far will they go, and who will they betray, to get the money?
When “The Westing Game” was released in 1978, the book was repeatedly likened to the board game “Clue.” As the novel unfolds, more clues are revealed, giving readers a chance to decipher the mystery for themselves. On top of making it fun, Raskin took the opportunity to educate about tolerance, as she pairs up characters of different ages, races and religions. Her writing is sinister and exacting, reminiscent of Shirley Jackson or Alfred Hitchcock.
If it were to be published today … well, who are we kidding? Raskin is to be commended for her foresight. The story that drives this Newbery Medal-winner would now be developed for a reality TV show. Raskin predicted the phenomenon decades before it happened. You have a group of strangers lumped together in an unusual situation, taking desperate measures to earn millions of dollars. Throw in someone eating a plateful of slugs and she would have nailed it. Really, it’s only a matter of time before television masterminds create a true crime show in which participants are asked to solve cases for cash. Wait, is there one already?
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