On the second Tuesday of each month, now through June, we are joining with other blogs to write about great mystery books aimed at kids. The challenge is to get them interested in reading the kind of mysteries we enjoy.
My choice this month is "The Westing Game," by Ellen Raskin, which is an absolutely first-rate puzzle-style mystery, very much in the classic tradition. It's a book written for kids, to be sure - in fact, it won the 1979 Newbery Medal for children's lit, the top honor in the field. But I can assure any adult reading this: "The Westing Game" is every bit as enjoyable and challenging to adults as it is to younger readers.
Sixteen people (including four children) are invited to an old mansion to hear a lawyer read the last will and testament of Samuel Westing, who has been found dead in that house. What they hear is a very strange offer: if they will agree to follow the instructions in the will, they will be divided into two-person teams to play a sort of game. Each twosome will be given $10,000 to start and a few written clues. Clues? Yes - but to what? An open question - but, according to Westing's will, he says that he did not die a natural death - and he wants the sixteen heirs to solve the puzzle and find the person - one of the sixteen - responsible for his death. The person who solves the problem will receive the bulk of his $200 million fortune.
Will they play along? What is the meaning of the peculiar clues - most of them only a single word? Before it is over, the sixteen heirs are going to have their whole lives changed, some quite radically, because of this unusual "game." There will be danger and adventure - and new relationships will be formed, too.
What makes the book work so well for me (I couldn't put it down for the last 80 pages or so) is the fact that it really is a classic puzzle mystery. There are a great many plot twists and turns, layer built on layer, but the reader is given every clue - yet, I suspect, will be unable to see where the book is heading until the final twists.It very much resembles the work of such great classic mystery writers as Ellery Queen, in that there are several "solutions" in succession, each new one supplanting what had seemed to be the correct solution. The use of a dying victim's message and the planting of open but cryptic clues were also favorites of Queen.
In other words, it plays the game so dear to those of us who love these puzzle mysteries, and plays it fairly and well. And if it brings that game to younger readers, letting them see the joys of these mysteries where the reader is given a fair chance to work out the solution, that's a wonderful thing. If I had children who had just read "The Westing Game," I'd challenge them - at the end of the book - to look back and see where they were given each piece of information which, correctly interpreted, would have led them to the right conclusion (just as it leads one - and only one - character in the book to the correct answer).
"The Westing Game" appears to be out of print at the moment, but there are a fair number of used book dealers who can get it quite easily, including several at the Amazon.com link above. My school librarian wife tells me it's recommended for age 9 and older - fine, as long as we clearly understand that "and older" means "right through adult." I can't recommend it highly enough, not only for children, but for any lover of this kind of mystery.