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The One Who Finds the Fourth

Now that my books are organized by genre, I’m alighting on books I haven’t read in years, and on New Year’s Day, I re-read Ellen Raskin’s young adult mystery The Westing Game.Raskin was a multiple-threat artist. Her 1966 picture book Nothing Ever Happens On My Block is incredibly visually witty, stylistically much more minimalist than Peter Spier’s lush, colorful illustrations of small-town American life, but with the same ability to pack tons of humor into detail. She’s fascinated by word games and illusions, something that shows in her first, and weaker, YA novel, The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel).But The Westing Game is that rare YA novel that, like Jean Merrill’s The Pushcart War, could easily serve as a comic adult novel. It’s got a sophisticated conceit: a new apartment building is filled with renters chosen by a mysterious industrialist to participate in the game that constitutes his will. The character sketches are short, and deft, and surprisingly dark. Raskin gives a pretty girl an extreme dark side and rejects the idea that she should be happy with marriage, and turns her shin-kicking financial whiz of a younger sister into a heroine. She isn’t afraid to dissect characters, but the novel emphasizes growth. Everyone ends the book a better person, whether they’ve mastered English or are running a chain of restaurants.A lot of the characters have fairly conventional problems: social-climbing ambitions, strained finances, stunted social lives, the effects of a lingering legacy of racism. But the mystery they’re confronted with lets them address, and work on, those issues in surprising and un-cliche ways. Maybe it’s worse to have a hackneyed mystery scenario than to resolve family and professional dramas in expected ways. But The Westing Game still feels fresh more than a decade after I first read it, and 32 years after it was written.

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