21 July 2013


Young Detectives: R is for . . . Restoration?

Believe it or not, it has been over two years since the last Young Detectives post. How am I so pathetic? =P

I actually found my "D" book immediately after publishing C is for Clements and started reading it soon after that. But it just didn't inspire me to blog, and the last time I tried working on my draft was January of this year. I gave up then, figuring that the Young Detectives project was a cold case that I'd never crack. O me of little faith . . .

Last week, I finished rereading an "R" book I had promised some friends I'd discuss with them, and realised that although it threw off the project's alphabetical order, it would possibly make a good post. Which is more than I've had in a while.

If the cover can play with perspective, so can I!
(Besides you were probably wondering what it feels like
to have me look down my nose at you,
and I thought I'd oblige . . .)

Dear Ellen Raskin,

Did anyone ever tell you that The Westing Game has too many characters? If so, send the whiners to me and I'll deal with them for you! If anything, your book has too few. It did take me a while to see what you were doing, but as soon as I got it, I was floored.

Pretty much everyone I know who has read this novel has said that keeping track of the characters was well-nigh impossible. I wonder if the first person to think that was you. I mean, having sixteen detectives, even working in pairs, is bound to be confusing. Heck, the characters all live or work in the same building and even they can barely keep track of each other!

It would have helped if you had revealed the identity of your "official" Young Detective early on: the protagonist doubles as pole star, after all, and lets us orient ourselves with the clues he or she has gathered. But you chose not to reveal, until the last possible moment, who the winner of The Westing Game would be--not because you were being indulgent or wanting to confuse us, but because you had a really great point.

Make that two really great points. I don't know how I failed to see, until this rereading, that you wanted your cast to be a microcosm of the United States. "Uncle Sam" Westing wasn't just bringing together random people who happened to have personal connections to him; he was also bringing together people who would never be neighbours anywhere in the world but America: people named Amber, Baumbach, Crow, Ford, Hoo, Pulaski, McSouthers, Theodorakis, and Wexler. In this light, we see a moral and not just a handy hint in Sam Westing's cryptic clue about how to win the game: It's not what you have, it's what you don't have that counts.

This was also the reason you didn't want us to be totally dependent on any detective, young or otherwise, to gather the clues for us. You wanted us to work for them, too, if only by writing notes on the characters, the way two of them started creating dossiers on the others. Granted, it's an extra load of work for those who just want to relax with a book--and who don't have the promise of a $200 million prize for solving the puzzle ahead of everyone else--but it's all part of the game's design, isn't it?

And that's the other thing it took me ages to notice: the second really great point about your Mystery novel. The "official" Young Detective isn't actually one of the characters, is it? It is the reader. Thanks for letting me play the Westing Game along with them!


With this, I guess we can consider the Young Detectives project officially restored. =) I just have no idea which letter of the alphabet I'll be featuring next. Come back in two years and we'll find out together. LOL!


love the girls said...

Are these children's books?

Enbrethiliel said...


Yes! So far, all the books I've featured for Young Detectives have been Middle Grade novels. =)

cyurkanin said...

Cezanne looooooved this though I couldn't make heads or tails of it :)

Melanie Bettinelli said...

Ahhhh.... and here you show me up. The real reason I was so ambivalent about the novel was I didn't want to work. For me R is for resistant. I wanted to be a lazy reader. Truth is I often turn to middle grade novels when I want to just read something fun without having to think too hard. I went into this not expecting a detective novel and it actually took me a while to realize that's what I was in.

I'm a really bad reader of detective fiction because secretly I don't want to be a detective or to solve the mystery. I'm just in it for the story and I want someone else to do the work.

Anyway, bravo. This was a great reading of the novel and made me appreciate it so much more. I think a second read would definitely help me to appreciate the game Uncle Sam, or should I say Ellen Raskin, had rigged.

Brandon said...

I love The Westing Game! I'll have to dig it up and re-read it after this post. I very much like your point about the American microcosm, which makes so much sense now that you point it out. And it puts the events of the epilogue in new light.

One of the things I like about the book was that, despite there being so many in a relatively short book, they still have enough personality to be interesting in themselves. I always liked Judge Ford, brilliant Josie-Jo, and remember thinking that her own story would make an interesting novel in its own right.

Have you seen the online manuscript exhibit for the book? It really brings home how carefully crafted it was.

Enbrethiliel said...


Christopher -- Turtle Wexler is probably more like Cecilia, though!

Melanie -- You're making me want to go to my bookshelves and check how many of my Middle Grade novels are mysteries of some sort. Take From the Mixed-up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler by E.L. Konigsburg: it's not really a Detective story, but it involves research worthy of art scholars. The big reveal isn't something the reader could race the characters to, but I can imagine a modern reader wishing he could guide the characters down certain research paths. In general, I think Middle Grade novels allow for a higher level of interactiveness than other books, partly because the target reader likely wants to be challenged rather than to relax, and partly because the author subconsciously sees the book as a way to play games with those younger readers.

Brandon -- Sticking with the American microcosm reading, we see why she has too few characters! ;-)

I agree that every character is complex enough to have his own spin-off novel--and not necessarily one for children. One thing I was surprised to catch during my second reading was Jake Wexler fleeting worry that his social climbing wife might end up holding his Jewish ancestry against him. Until that point, all Grace Windsor Wexler's biases and pretensions had been played for laughs; but they certainly had a dark side all that time, and Raskin was responsible enough to point it out.

Thank you for the link to the manuscript exhibit! I had known Raskin was an illustrator of other books and that she designed the first cover of The Westing Game; but my copy uses another artist's design and probably none of her specifications for the layout. I wonder how much I lost because of that, the medium being the message and all.