The book opens with a strange building: Sunset Towers. Sunset Towers faces east, despite the fact that the sun sets in the west, and had no towers to speak of. It stands entirely unoccupied on Lake Michigan. A 62-year-old man delivers a letter inviting six people (only six) to come live in the apartment building for a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. There is also an opportunity to rent a doctor’s office in the lobby, a coffee shop, and a restaurant on the top floor. Each letter is signed by “Barney Northrup” but the narrator clues us in that there is no such person.
The first family to view the apartments are the Wexlers. Barney Northrup shows the apartments with expertise and Grace Wexler is overjoyed with the apartment (though her husband Dr. Jake Wexler feels otherwise) and they decide to buy. Sydelle Pulaski, a secretary, is less impressed, though she decides to take it. The apartments view the Westing Estate in the distance.
On one day, all of the apartments are rented as follows:
Office: Dr. Wexler
Lobby: Theodorakis Coffee Shop
2C: F. Baumbach
3C: S. Pulaski
4D: J.J. Ford
5: Shin Hoo’s Restaurant
We are warned that Barney Northrup rented one apartment to the wrong person.
On September 1, all the tenants move in. There is little sense of community in Sunset Towers, but it is cordial. The youngest tenants - Doug Hoo, Theo Theodorakis, and Turtle Wexler - all discuss the mysterious happenings at the Westing Mansion with the 62-year-old delivery boy, Otis Amber, and the stocky doorman, Sandy McSouthers. Otis tells the spooky tale of an unfortunate fellow who went into the mansion, and came out screaming, chased by a ghost - or worse, yelling about “purple waves.” While they discuss the happenings, they see that there is smoke coming from the Westing House chimney, watched by Theo’s handicapped brother, Chris, who earlier in the day had seen someone come out of the Westing house.
Days later, Angela Wexler is being fitted for her wedding gown by Flora Baumbach, who is a local dressmaker who lives in the building. She is supervised by her overbearing mother, Grace. Turtle enters the apartment and tells them all about the smoke rising from the Westing Apartment. She is dismissed by her mother, but Angela and Flora listen with interest.
Downstairs in Turtle’s father’s office, Dr. Wexler cuts a corn off of the foot of Mrs. Crow, who notices the smoke in the window as well. She repeats the rumor that Sam Westing’s corpse must be rotting away in his mansion on an Oriental rug.
Mr. Hoo simmers about his restaurant’s lack of business and greets the return of Sam Westing with contempt, implying that they have a history. He takes out his frustrations on his son, who he forces to study.
Judge J.J. Ford returns home to Sunset Towers and asks Sandy McSouthers for her thoughts about the return of Sam Westing, repeating what he’s heard from Otis Amber. The judge insults her, then thinks of her position as the first black female judge in the state and retracts his insult. She considers how, if Sam Westing is truly back, she will pay him back and if he will accept it.
Chris doesn’t tell his brother Theo about the mysterious figure with the limp who he saw go into the Westing House and instead allows Theo to tell him the scary story about a corpse on the Oriental rug. Sydelle Pulaski always says that he has a “smile that could break your heart.”
Sydelle Pulaski feels like no one notices her, but she plots a way to never be overlooked again. Her plot involves crutches, paint thinner, paint, and brushes.
On Halloween, Turtle Wexler dresses as a witch and ascends to the Westing House, fully stocked to spend the night there at the rate of two dollars for every minute she spends inside. She surprises them by actually following through with the feat––she stays inside for twelve minutes before coming out screaming. She claims she saw the dead body of Sam Westing lying in a four-poster bed, while a voice repeated “purple waves” over and over before she ran away.
The next day, the daily newspaper reports Sam Westing is dead. He was born poor and built his fortune in the company Westing Paper Products. A spokesman for the head of the company, Julian Eastman, makes a statement about the tragedy.
Otis Amber then delivers letters to every single resident of Sunset Towers, asking for their presence the next day at 4 p.m. for a reading of Sam Westing’s will. Everyone is mystified by who could possibly be related to Sam Westing.
The next day each of the tenants gathers at the Westing House. Most tenants have not been together in a room before, so awkwardness ensues. Flora coos to Chris, and is told off by Theo for treating her brother like he’s a baby or retarded. Grace Wexler wears furs to show she is not a poor relative and shakes J.J. Ford’s hand to show that she is liberal enough to shake hands with a black woman.
The lawyer handling the case is E. J. Plum, a young inexperienced lawyer who Judge Ford remembers as incompetent. Before they get started, Sydelle arrives on crutches. She claims that she has a wasting disease that will kill her slowly, clearly enjoying the attention. On her dress, she wears purple waves.
E.J. Plum begins the reading of the will, reminding the crowd that he has never met Sam Westing. The will is separated into 11 parts. The FIRST claims that each person in the racially diverse crowd is one of his 16 nieces and nephews, causing outrage from Grace Windsor Wexler that he miraculously predicts. The SECOND claims that he was murdered by someone in the room, which causes another outcry. The THIRD asks who among them is worthy to be the heir. The FOURTH says they too may strike it rich if they choose to play the Westing Game. The FIFTH correctly predicts an interruption from Judge Ford. The SIXTH asks for a minute of silence for Uncle Sam. They move into the game room for the rest of the will where eight card tables wait for them. The SEVENTH part explains the rules:
- Number of players: 16, divided into 8 pairs.
- Each pair will receive $10,000.
- Each pair will receive one set of clues.
- Forfeits: If any player drops out, the partner must leave the game. The pair must return the money. Absent pairs forfeit the $10,000; their clues will be held until the next session.
- Players will be given two days’ notice of the next session. Each pair may then give one answer.
- Object of the game: to win.
The pairs are as follows:
MADAME SUN LIN HOO, cook
JAKE WEXLER, standing or sitting when not lying down
(Both of these partners are not present, disqualifying them)
TURTLE WEXLER, witch,
FLORA BAUMBACH, dressmaker
CHRISTOS THEODORAKIS, birdwatcher
D. DENTON DEERE, intern, St. Joseph’s Hospital, Department of Plastic Surgery
ALEXANDER MCSOUTHERS, doorman
J. J. FORD, judge, Appellate Division of the State Supreme Court
GRACE WINDSOR WEXLER, heiress
JAMES SHIN HOO, restaurateur
BERTHE ERICA CROW, Good Salvation Soup Kitchen
OTIS AMBER, deliverer
THEO THEODORAKIS, brother
DOUG HOO, first in all-state high-school mile run
SYDELLE PULASKI, secretary to the president
ANGELA WEXLER, none
NINTH, each pair receives a check for $10,000. And TENTH, each pair receives a pair of different clues. Everyone reacts differently to their clues, most strongly Judge Ford, who accuses the clues of having a racially insensitive tinge. Finally, the ELEVENTH closes with a warning that not everyone is who they say they are. If they know who they are, and what they want, and which way the wind blows, they will be successful. If they do not, they will fail.
The Westing Game sets up the elements of a classic murder mystery. The characters each have something to hide and something to gain by the death of Sam Westing, but Raskin augments the story with a twist: Sam Westing will reward the one who solves the mystery of who killed him. This two-part, murder-mystery game setup creates a unique story engine.
The setup of who lives in Sunset Towers so close to the Westing Mansion seems planned by an omniscient force. The mysterious Barney Northum follows orders to get a specific group of seemingly unconnected people into one place. Whoever he is, he is exceptionally good at convincing the future tenants that this is where they belong. Nothing is up to chance or fate; it’s all by design.
The story does not seem to revolve around one particular character as a protagonist; we are given glimpses into the minds of each character through the lens of an omniscient narrator. The reader can jump from apartment to apartment and is given a sense that they know more than the characters, though not the identity of the murderer.
One element that Raskin clearly wants to highlight is the diversity of the characters. In the cast we have Greek, Chinese, black, disabled, Jewish, and Polish characters, a deliberate choice for its publication in 1978. These identities are not unconnected to the plot; they can be a point of tension for the characters and fuel their motivations. The willingness to tackle these themes show that even though classified as a children’s book, The Westing Game is ahead of its time.
Also, even though it’s a children’s book, there are glimmers of adult humor. When Dr. Wexler is asked to record his position, he replies “standing up when not lying down,” which could go over the head of younger readers. She also shows she is unafraid of skewering social satire, as she paints Grace Wexler as a social-climbing housewife with a complete lack of self-awareness. In fact, it is the children in the story who seem to have the best grasp on the ways of the world, surrounded by ridiculous and at times nasty adults.