One of my favorite books as a kid was Ellen Raskin’s The Westing Game. It was first read to me (or rather to my whole class) by my sixth grade teacher at Westland Elementary School, Mrs. Ashmore. I have gone back to it several times in the intervening 20+ years and it just gets better the older I get.
The Westing Game is a classic murder mystery, inspired, I am given to understand, by Agatha Christie’s novels, though intended for a younger audience. It has about a 6th-grade reading level, but if you’ve got a 10-year-old who’s into stuff like Harry Potter this will be right up their alley. No magic here, of course, but a crazy ensemble cast (think Clue), a classic “whodunit” setup, and plenty of red herrings, rabbit trails, sleight-of-hand, and misdirection.
Like the best Pixar movies, this book appeals to young and old alike, but each for different reasons. Kids will identify (at least I did) with main character Turtle Wexler, a clever and headstrong girl who kicks anyone in the shins who pulls her braids, and who seems to have the best chance at solving the mystery. Adults will appreciate the clever plot twists and witty plays on words littered throughout the book.
I dare you to read the opening paragraphs without feeling completely sucked in:
The sun sets in the west (just about everyone knows that), but Sunset Towers faced east. Strange!
Sunset Towers faced east and had no towers. This glittery, glassy apartment house stood alone on the Lake Michigan shore five stories high. Five empty stories high.
Then one day (it happened to be the Fourth of July), a most uncommon-looking delivery boy rode around town slipping letters under the doors of the chosen tenants-to-be. The letters were signed Barney Northrup.
The delivery boy was sixty-two years old, and there was no such person as Barney Northrup. . . .
Six letters were delivered, just six. Six appointments were made, and one by one, family by family, talk, talk, talk, Barney Northrup led the tours around and about Sunset Towers.1
And the end of chapter one a few pages later:
Whoever, whatever else he was, Barney Northrup was a good salesman. In one day he had rented all of Sunset Towers to the people whose names were already printed on the mailboxes in an alcove off the lobby. . . .
Who were these people, these specially selected tenants? They were mothers and fathers and children. A dressmaker, a secretary, an inventor, a doctor, a judge. And, oh yes, one was a bookie, one was a burglar, one was a bomber, and one was a mistake. Barney Northrup had rented one of the apartments to the wrong person.2
As it turns out, the tenants of Sunset Towers were chosen to live there because they are all potential heirs to the $200 million fortune of the patriotic paper product tycoon Samuel “Uncle Sam” Westing. When he turns up dead in his house shortly after everyone moves in, they quickly find themselves caught up in a nutty game the eccentric old man had written into his will. The heirs are also the suspects, the dead man himself provides the clues, and whoever figures out the answer inherits the whole fortune.
This book is funny and smart, with emotional highs and lows. It will make you laugh on one page and tug at your heartstrings on the next. Maybe I hold a lot of nostalgia for this book because of the age at which I was introduced to it, but it did win a Newberry medal and even had a made-for-TV movie based on it, so it definitely made an impact. Pick it up. Young or old, I guarantee you will not be able to put it back down.