In the strategy-based Westing game, it's the narrator who holds all the cards—er, chess pieces.
We might think Mr. Westing is smart for designing such a complicated, tricky game, but ultimately the narrator's even smarter: she/he keeps track of the puzzle, the real solution, and each of the heirs' constantly evolving answers.
The narrator always knows things that the characters don't, which sometimes comes out as a delicious irony that's shared only with the reader:
Madame Hoo knew from the shifting eyes that a bad person was in the room. She was the bad person. They would find out soon. The crutch lady had her writing-book back, but all those pretty things she was going to sell, they wanted them back, too. She would be punished. Soon. (24.9)
From time to time the narrator pokes gentle fun at the heirs as they bumble into and around the clues they're given... but she/he can also be almost cruel in stripping away characters' cover ups and shields to reveal the true selves they're hiding:
What good luck, the hobbling Sydelle Pulaski thought. Now she would really be noticed with such a pretty young thing for a partner. They might even invite her to the wedding. She'd paint a crutch white with little pink nosegays. (7.23)
The narrator empathizes with characters who are in bad spots, and gets us readers to feel empathetic too—although our narrator never disguising the prejudiced or hurtful thoughts of the book's characters.
The real mystery about The Westing Game is why it hasn't been made into a (successful) blockbuster by now. It has all the hallmarks of a hit. Hidden identities. Murder. A cast a nutso characters snowed in in a tower by Lake Michigan. Two hundred million bucks on the line.
We've busy writing our dream cast list.
But back to the question of genre: while The Westing Game is marketed as children's literature, won the Newbery Medal, and was written by a children's book author and illustrator, we think it's primarily a mystery novel. At a bookstore, however, you'd probably find it in the children's literature section.
But don't look down at this book just because it has the family-friendly Newbery seal of approval. It'sa book like Alice In Wonderland—there's no upper age limit when it comes to loving this novel. Oh, and like Alice, it's all about solving brain-teasing puzzles.
The puzzle at the heart of the book uber-clever, and each time we read it we spot more clues that we didn't notice the first time. But the big ideas in the book—thoughts about who we really are, who we want to be, and who we're running from—are all things that apply across genres. The Westing Game asks: "Whodunnit?" but it also asks "Who are we, really?"
This title The Westing Game refers to a "game" the characters are playing: find the answer to Sam Westing's will, and win $200 million.
Simple, right? Ha. Nothing—not even the title—is simple in The Westing Game.
This title also refers to another, similar game that only the narrator and one character know about—the tricky game of identifying the hidden identities of Sam Westing. Both of these games are kind of like chess: there are teams playing for strategy, with pawns, queens, and sacrifices.
The Oxford English Dictionary (by the way, this might be the best dictionary to ever use in a Lit paper) tells us that the first, most popular meaning of "game" is "amusement, delight, fun, mirth, sport" (OED "game," n. 1.1).
This isn't how most of the characters in this novel take it, though: some of them are uber-serious about playing, and are playing to win. They're not here to make friends. One thing for us to think about, then, is whether this "game" is "amusing" or "fun." Does it have a darker side?
The other cool part of the title is its subtitle: "A puzzle mystery." Have you ever seen another book with that in its title? We haven't either. So, what does this part of the title do? Well, it tells us what the genre of the book is—always a handy thing—and it also tweaks that genre.
This title says that the book isn't any ol' whodunnit—it's also a puzzle. While the book keeps secrets from the characters and the reader, readers always have more pieces to the puzzle than almost any one character does. Maybe we can solve it before the characters do...
Okay, so there are actually three endings to this novel—which is something that hardly ever happens outside of a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story.
However, maybe it's fitting for the game-within-a-game structure of the book. Untying such a complicated concoction takes more than just one neat little ending, right?
In Ending #1, Turtle solves the mystery, and the other characters go about their lives. She's the winner but no one else knows it. While this might not seem like much of a prize—apart from the $200 million, that is—it suits Turtle just fine. She's good at keeping secrets, and she won the game fair and square.
Ending #2 takes us to peek into the characters' lives five years later, when some of them have figured everything their lives out... and some are still working on it. Everyone seems to be "growing up," though, even the adults: businesses are successful, people are getting married, and characters are seeing rewards for their good deeds.
In Ending # 3, Turtle's with Sam Westing when he dies for real, and she finally becomes the heir. But it's not just Sam W who's bitten the bullet—several other key characters have passed away at this point. The ending skips so many years ahead from when most of the game takes place that the thirteen-year-old heroine's now a married businessperson.
It makes sense that the book would have to get to this point, though, since the original game was tied to the "death" of Sam Westing... and the winner can't collect her prize until the inheritance becomes available.
Ah, Wisco. Cheese curds. The Dells. The Packers. Reclusive millionaires and their empty luxury apartment blocs.
Hmm. One of these things is not like the others...
Okay, so the Badger State might not be the first place you'd think of when you hear about murder most foul and crazy millionaires. (That would be Florida. Just kidding, Florida: we love you.) But nearly all of the book's action takes place in two Wisconsin settings: the new apartment building, Sunset Towers, and the neighboring Westing house.
Nearly all the characters live in the Sunset Towers: there are two restaurants inside, and a good ol' Wisconsin snowstorm traps the residents within for several days. Since Sunset Towers is created precisely for the game—and broken up as prizes when the game's over—it can be seen as an elaborate game board where the characters are set up as "pieces."
In a way, it's like a stage set for Westing's private play, enacted right next door to his original estate. It's designed to be just affordable and classy enough to appeal to each individual tenant, and it seems to be giving each of them what they want.
The Westing house, in contrast, seems creepy and dangerous, with its seventeen shuttered windows and big French doors. Not only is it isolated, empty, and dark, it also has mysterious smoke coming from the chimney and people who limp sneaking in and out. It's where Turtle thinks she sees a dead body, where the heirs are taunted by the ideas of fortune and partnership. And where Sandy dies. It sounds kind of like the house in the board game Clue, with its game room, library, and echoing staircases.
Good news: The Westing Game is way less of a brain strain than the average game of chess.
The Westing Game isn't that tough to read, at least on the surface. Sure, there's a great mystery throughout the book, but you can just read along with the characters and figure out the clues along with them.
None of the words used are that big—at least, not really—and the ones that seem kind of unusual, like "dastardly," get defined in the book for us. Lucky for us, in order to solve the mystery, the characters have to rely on their considerable smarts.
Pro-tip: reading The Westing Game the second time over is super-satisfying—it allows you to see how the clues got folded into the plot.
The text can get a teensy bit complicated on a grammatical/word choice level—the narrator switches rapidly back and forth between telling the story from several points of view, all the while keeping track of which characters know what, who's got a secret, and when the big reveal will be revealed.
But hey: this wouldn't be a whodunnit if it was straightforward, would it?
One great example of this comes in Chapter16, "The Third Bomb." After the bomb goes off during the bridal shower, many of the tenants gather in the lobby of Sunset Towers to meet with a police captain. Let's look at the dialogue that follows:
"Some game," Mr. Hoo grumbled, unwrapping a chocolate bar. One ulcer wasn't enough, Sam Westing had to give him three more. "Some game. The last one alive wins."
(Now, there's a likely suspect, Otis Amber thought. Hoo, the inventor; Hoo, the angry man, the madman.)
"The last one alive wins," Flora Baumbach repeated. "Oh my, what a terrible thing to say."
(Can't trust that dressmaker, Mr. Hoo thought. How come she's grinning at a time like this?) (16.21-24)
Dang. That is basically a carousel of revolving points of view.
Raskin often rapidly cycles through several different characters' viewpoints in a way that's almost like editorial cuts between scenes in an action movie. Even as one heir suspects one individual, that individual's suspecting another. We, and the heirs, don't know who to trust. So we've got cool narrative structure, rapid character development, and plot untangling, all in one.
What this scene also reveals, if you're paying close attention, is who the murderer isn't. Unless Mr. Hoo and Otis are lying to themselves about any potential murdering they might have done, the fact that both of them are worried that the murder is one of the other tenants is a pretty good sign that neither of them is the killer.
Yet the scene's also perfectly clear. We know who thinks what, in what order, and we can keep up with the narrator in moving from one character's consciousness to another. It's almost polite. Raskin keeps throwing out clues and making even the most complicated moments, plot-wise, seem relatively straightforward.
(By the way, for more on how some of lines in this chapter reveal ideas about lying and trickery in the text, check out our section on Quotes: "Lies and Deceit.")
Apart from the overarching Westing game, chess is the most important game in Raskin's book. Several characters play it really well – we hear of the Judge, Theo, and Turtle all going up against Westing, and each of them is good enough to make it fairly far in games with him, even though Turtle's the only one who ever wins. In a way, the other heirs also play, because they make the same strategic mistake playing the Westing game that Theo and the Judge make playing chess with Westing: sacrificing the queen.
For those of you who don't know that much about chess, it's a game of strategy between two sides, which are usually seen as black and white. Significantly, each side begins the game with sixteen playing pieces, including a king and queen (it's not a coincidence that there are sixteen players in the Westing game). The object of the game is to capture your opponent's king. If we extend the idea of chess to the book as a whole, this idea would probably transfer to capturing the murderer (or identifying the true Sam Westing).
So, the idea of chess reverberates throughout the text. Moving pieces on a chessboard is related explicitly to the book's structure: each time the heirs go over to the Westing house, Theo makes a move on the chessboard there, only to find his opponent's next move when he returns. The Judge calls herself a pawn, which means she feels like she's being manipulated and doesn't have any power. Remember, too, that Otis calls himself and Crow the king and queen, and Crow does wind up as the person/piece who's temporarily sacrificed at the end of the game. Theo sees Sydelle's black and white dress as a chessboard, and wanders around asking people whether they know how to play. He's right that the answer to that question is an important clue, but unfortunately when he asks the right person, Sandy doesn't tell the truth.
Turtle really puts her foot in it when she points out how Sydelle uses her crutches to get attention, but in a way she's only saying what everybody else has been thinking. Turtle means that Sydelle uses her fake limp and her coordinated crutches – symptoms of her imaginary disease – to make sure that people notice her. It's true, but it also hurts Sydelle's feelings. Angela covers for Turtle by saying, "She used the word crutch as a symbol. She meant, you know, that people are so afraid of revealing their true selves, they have to hide behind some sort of prop" (12.36). The thing is, Angela's really not making things any better; Sydelle's use of her crutches is both literal and symbolic. Instead of trying to stay hidden, she's using the crutches to make people find her.
Crutches don't always have to be literal, though. In Chapter 12, Sydelle accuses Turtle of using her "big mouth" (12.37) as a crutch, while Angela secretly thinks that Turtle relies too much on her braid. While Sydelle's right that Turtle does hide behind her big mouth, Angela's more correct: Turtle uses her braid to interact with people in ways that are very similar to how Sydelle uses her crutches in her interactions. Turtle almost taunts people with her braid. Sometimes it seems like her braid is begging to be pulled, but when people do pull it, she has the perfect excuse for kicking them. And we know that kicking people is something Turtle gets a perverse joy out of. Her braid also reinforces her identity as "Turtle," and it's only after she loses it that she's able to start referring to herself as "T.R."
Perhaps unfairly, Turtle's braid is taken from her before she's ready to lose it – it's burned off in the fourth bombing – while Sydelle just gets to stop using her crutches as attention-getters when she feels like it. To be fair, Sydelle probably wasn't planning on actually having to use her crutches, but she ends up needing to after she's hurt in the second bombing.
Most people think that engagement rings symbolize marriage. They're an accessory that (usually) women in the Western world wear to show the commitment they've made to get hitched to some swell guy. For Angela, though, an engagement ring begins to signify a trap, pushing her into an uncomfortable social position, one in which she's only defined by the man to whom she's married. The ring also reminds her of all the things she hasn't done, and the ways in which she's not independent. No wonder it seems to be giving her a rash. Wearing her ring both gives her the identity of a doctor's wife and limits her to it – nothing more, nothing less. As the novel unfolds, we see that there's so much more Angela wants to be.
As a symbol, the will is almost too obvious; it stands for a $200 million fortune that all the heirs desperately want to inherit. It's also an elaborate list of rules for a very private, possible very lucrative game. It dictates who the heirs hang out with and gives them motivation, it speaks to them, and it even bosses them around. It fixes their old problems and creates new ones. When the will seems to be engaging in dialogue with the heirs (telling Grace and the Judge to sit down, telling all the heirs their answers are wrong), it takes on almost lifelike qualities, and assumes the kind of power that's usually not reserved for inanimate objects.
Third Person (Omniscient) is the perfect point of view (POV) for a complex murder mystery like this one. We actually can't think of anything else that would work better.
This POV allows Raskin to represent the thoughts of each character at any time, while also revealing more to the reader than any knowledge that's given to one single character. For example, all the characters share their clues with the reader, even though they won't share them with other characters necessarily. Watch, though, how some characters only say what their clues are at specific times, so the reader doesn't learn too much too soon. While we as readers are like privileged characters, the narrator is still keeping some elements of the game from us as well.
Lots of detective stories or mysteries focus on one single character for POV, usually the person solving the mystery. Here, since everyone is working to solve the puzzle, it makes sense to weave in and out of each person's consciousness while never getting tied to any one character. This narrative voice definitely knows more than the other characters; consider how it tells us at the beginning that one of the tenants is a mistake, for example.
This section does a great job of setting up both the time/place of the action and the many characters that will be living in it and taking part in the mystery. Sixteen characters are a lot to juggle, especially in a short(er) novel, and Raskin does a great job of providing a little bit of detail on each of them while also advancing the plot.
The idea of putting up a bunch of people to compete with one another to win a heck of a lot of money sets up a perfect, textbook conflict. There are eight teams of two and each of them wants to win the inheritance. It's husbands against wives, children against parents, and old enemies against high school students, as the group of sixteen works separately to figure out a prize that none of them are able to solve on their own.
There are sixteen people playing the game, and each of them encounters one complication. One sets off bombs, one hires a PI, three go to the hospital, and just about all of them spy on each other. During all this, we learn more about each of the characters, what their "real" identities are, and what some of them wish their real selves could actually turn out to be.
The heirs gather together to hear the last part of the will read; several teams are convinced they have the right answer, while other teams despair that they have no answer at all. What's interesting is that several teams' answers point to one character, Otis Amber, and none of them put him forward as the solution.
Everyone's disappointed when the answer seems to be "Berthe Erica Crow," and Crow puts herself forward as the answer, while Sandy dies and the others find out that they seem to have lost the game.
In a trial-like scene, the remaining characters gather to go over the will, kind of like they did in the "Conflict" stage. This time, they go back over each of the details in the will, pausing to ask each other questions and try to find out what Westing meant.
While everyone else seems to think the game is over, Turtle realizes it may not be, and races against the clock to figure out the answer without letting anyone else know she's onto something.
You'll notice that in the section "What's Up With the Ending?" we called this moment the first ending, even though it can also be seen as the denouement. This is because it's a way of figuring out the main problem at the heart of the story and putting the characters back in their places, but as such it also seems that the "solution" would be a kind of ending to the mystery.
Anyway, Turtle figures out the puzzle, but nobody else does; the rest of the characters manage to content themselves with their shares in Sunset Towers and look toward the future.
The two conclusion sections take two jumps forward in time: first, five years later, and second, about fifteen years after that. At each of these moments, the text reveals a rapid rundown of what's happened in or to each character's life, kind of like showing us a photo album at a high school reunion. We get closure on each of the characters, and watch as the prize that was won by Turtle during the denouement is finally and fully awarded.