So: how do I love thee, The Westing Game?
I suppose I’m guilty of lapsing into self-parody when I say that the dominant impression of the book, for me, is one of sadness. Not a melancholy, adolescent kind of sadness, but a wise sadness, an adult one. That might be an entirely idiosyncratic response. I couldn’t say that most people would look at the novel as a particularly sad one, and the story doesn’t end tragically. But the truly brilliant thing about the story is not just that Ellen Raskin builds such a satisfying and engrossing mystery, but that she weaves the mystery (and its solution) into the personal tragedies and hardships of the characters. Particularly impressive is the way in which the solution of a lot of these problems dovetail into each other without seeming too facile or pat. (And, in fact, some of the characters complain about old man Westing’s perceived attempts to create that kind of happy ending.)
This symmetry wouldn’t be worth much if those characters weren’t so well drawn. You can imagine how easy it would have been for Raskin to misstep; you’ve got a black woman judge and Chinese restaurant owner and his quiet wife and a kid in a wheelchair…. None of them come across as parodies, and none of them exists simply to advance the narrative. Again, they are realized best by the portrayal of their pain; Madame Hoo might seem like a typically mute foreign wife, but when she looks out across a lake, pining for China, there’s genuine emotional force there. As time goes on, I become more convinced that effective narrative depends upon an ethos of sympathy for all characters. Denton Deere, the arrogant and callous surgical student, is revealed over time to have a complex inner life. Just as the characters are forced through Westing’s manipulation to reveal themselves to each other, so the reader’s initial judgments are confounded and undone. Dynamic characters lead to evocative, well-drawn themes. For example, the novel’s consideration of race, often so wince-inducing in young adult fiction, is nuanced and careful.
The novel’s conclusion (and here I’ll warn of spoilers) is at once positive and tinged with sadness. Turtle solves the mystery, in the end, but Raskin’s expert construction demonstrates that solving the mystery was not, ultimately, the point. Nor is there any sense in which the moral character of Westing’s game, that of forgiveness and asking to be forgiven, actually results in permanent healing. Crow is forgiven and asked for forgiveness, but in the end, there is no atonement. (Indeed, I find the Westing Game a far more effective work than Ian McEwan’s “mature” novel of the same themes, Atonement.) Westing dies after a long and successful life, but the scene at his deathbed is still moving. Jake and Grace Wexler’s marriage may be in a better place, but is still troubled. The characters’ lives are improved but not healed.
At the end, Turtle tells Westing that she and Theo will have children someday, lying to him to spare a dying man of the truth: that she and her husband had decided against having children, given the risks of hereditary disease. This is particularly moving given the great affection that Theo has for his wheelchair-bound brother, Chris. I think, at the end of the day, that this moment echoes part of the broader message of the book: that the whole truth is not always the best, most humane pursuit, that what we reveal to the ones we love is not more important than what we spare them, and that not all mysteries are meant to be solved. To craft a mystery that is so complete and so satisfying, and at the same time so deeply ambivalent to the solving of mysteries and uncovering of secrets– that’s worthy of a love letter.