“I’m not into thrillers or true crime.” As a critic, I repeat this to myself as I delete genre e-mail pitches. And yet, while I’ve never read Louise Penny or seen a single episode of “Law & Order” and am possibly the only woman in my demographic who didn’t listen to the “Serial” podcast, maybe there is a part of me that itches for a mystery. After all, the one book I’ve read more than any other is “The Westing Game.”
Ellen Raskin’s 1979 Newbery Award-winning novel opens with an uncanny observation of a newly constructed apartment building: “The sun sets in the west (just about everyone knows that), but Sunset Towers faced east. Strange!” After making this enigmatic statement, Raskin populates the building. “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.” What’s more, they’re all potential heirs to a fortune possessed by an eccentric businessman named Sam Westing.
Once gathered together, these neighbors are divided into pairs, then foisted upon one another to play a game. A last will and testament states that Westing has been murdered by one of the possible heirs. Clues are carefully distributed in order to riddle out a solution. Winner takes all should they solve the crime before the killer strikes again. What follows is a subtle exploration of human nature.
“The Westing Game” reveals how dense, complicated individuals can be both vicious and benevolent. Raskin is a nimble, but granular writer, breathing life into oddball characters like track star high schooler Doug Hoo; Sydelle Pulaski, who brings artistic flare to crutches she uses but has no need for; and Turtle Wexler, a 12-year-old with a long braid, a mind for finance, and a penchant for kicking in fits of pique. As they bristle and snoop, bombs detonate and assumptions swirl in this ever shifting puzzle. Walking through an exercise in vengeance, Raskin uncovers a larger humanity that binds her beloved characters together.
As a kid, I devoured Nancy Drew, systematically reading the library’s entire shelf of yellow spined books; later, sitting in doctors’ waiting rooms, I moved up to Agatha Christie, swept up by intrigue and dastardly behavior. But as I sat on street curbs in my native New Orleans, waiting for Mardi Gras parades to arrive, I read and reread “The Westing Game.” Again and again, I saw how clues conceal as much as they reveal. The psychological work of thrillers shares a similar project with literary fiction: Assume nothing, pay attention, remain open to the truth.
Lauren LeBlanc is a board member of the National Book Critics Circle.