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Literature: The Westing Game

It's not what you have, it's what you don't have that counts.

A murder-mystery epic Newbery Award winning novel by Ellen Raskin about sixteen heirs who compete to win a $200 million inheritance from the late Samuel W. Westing. Westing, for his own reasons, has set up a game of his own, set in a very large, cushy building where the heirs and their families are basically trapped into staying; the only clues he gives the players are seemingly nonsensical words printed on paper towel squares. Figure out the clues and the answer should be obvious... but maybe not.

The book inspired a 1997 TV movie starring Ray Walston and Ashley Peldon.

This book contains examples of:

  • Arranged Marriage: The subtext behind Angela Wexler and Dr. Denton Deere's engagement is that Grace hand-picked a brilliant doctor for her perfect daughter, who went along with it because she's The Good Daughter. It's outright stated that Westing's wife Crow did the same thing with her daughter and a politician, which led to the daughter's suicide.
  • Attending Your Own Funeral: Westing attends the will reading and sessions of the Game in the guise of one of the heirs.
  • Batman Gambit: The "trial" to prove Crow's innocence in both Westing and Sandy's deaths is actually an attempt by Turtle to gather all the information she needs to win the game. Ford eventually realizes this, but as she isn't privy to all the clues or Turtle's thoughts she isn't able to figure out what Turtle does.
  • Berserk Button: Don't pull Turtle's braid. Seriously, don't.
  • Beware the Nice Ones: Angela is the bomber. Madame Hoo is the thief.
  • The Big Race: Doug's track meet, which occupies more of his attention than the Game does.
  • A Bloody Mess: When the first bomb goes off, Mrs Theodorakis appears to be covered in blood, but it's just tomato sauce.
  • Brick Joke:
    • Flora Baumbach's car's hood also comes open in traffic, a few pages after another heir follows a (false) lead to check under the hoods of the vehicles in Sunset Towers' parking lot. Guess they didn't secure Flora's properly afterwards.
    • Otis shouting "Boom!" to scare people teaches Madame Hoo this word, which eventually becomes Team One's totally-random answer.
    • Jake Wexler, the podiatrist, is also a bookie, though this is only mentioned in passing once or twice. At the end of the book, Ford pulls strings to have him appointed to a government panel determining whether to set up a state lottery. The epilogues reveal that he later becomes State Gambling Commissioner, and finally the state crime commissioner.
    • Sydelle injures her leg (again) just in time to attend the heirs' reunion on crutches.
  • Call to Adventure: The whole plot gets kicked off, after everyone has moved into Sunset Towers, by Otis Amber, prompted by Sandy/Westing, telling Turtle, Theo, and Doug the "ghost story" about the Westing House, thus encouraging them to go explore it and find Westing.
  • Captain Obvious: Sydelle, when trying to get someone to admit to being a twin.
  • Cassandra Truth: "It's not what you have, it's what you don't have that counts." No one even thinks about that until the final meeting, and they still misinterpret it, and yet it was completely accurate. The goal of the Westing Game was to deduce the fourth alias used by Sam Westing. Three of them were known acquaintances of all the players, although the players didn't know those people were alter egos of Sam's. Once the winner of the game figured out what the real goal was, it was very easy.
  • Catch Phrase:
    • Otis Amber exclaims "Boom!" at random times to scare people after the first two bombings.
    • Also, "purple waves."
  • Chekhov's Gunman: Otis Amber. Also Sandy/Barney Northrup.
  • The Chessmaster: Sam Westing.
  • Chess Motifs:
    • Sixteen heirs, or eight pairs, which Theo notices is the same as the number of pawns in a game of chess.
    • Sam Westing, as well as being The Chessmaster, is reputed to be extremely skilled at the actual game of chess.
    • Judge Ford recalls that during her final chess game with Sam Westing, he tricked her into letting him checkmate by giving her the opportunity to take his queen. She later draws a parallel between the "Queen's Sacrifice" and the Westing Game, since exposing Crow as a murderer would distract most of the heirs from the real objective.
  • Cloud Cuckoolander: Otis Amber appears to be one of these, but it's actually Obfuscating Insanity. In different ways, Sydelle Pulaski and Crow also qualify, the latter even having qualities of The Ophelia.
  • Color-Coded for Your Convenience: Invoked in-story by Sydelle, who always paints her crutches to match her clothing as a form of attention. Played for particular relevance when she dressed in the colors of the U.S. flag to sing "America the Beautiful".
  • Consummate Liar: Westing, and Turtle. Unsurprisingly.
  • Conservation of Detail: To an extreme degree.
  • The Coroner: Sikes, who is an important accomplice to Westing's scheme.
  • Death by Newbery Medal:
    • Turtle has to face death: first by finding Westing's dead body, then by witnessing the fatal collapse of her doorman friend Sandy, and finally (as a grown woman) by staying at the bedside of dying Mr. Eastman. The book is a very convoluted puzzle-mystery; all three are the same man, who'd faked his death twice.
    • The deaths of James Hoo, Berthe Crow, and Otis Amber are mentioned as well, during the "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue. They all died of old age, and not much emotional hay is made of their passing.
  • December-December Romance: Otis Amber and Crow
  • Did I Just Say That Out Loud?: Prior to the final meeting of the game, Jake and Grace Wexler fill out their forms under the influence of alcohol, causing Jake to list his position as "bookie" and Grace to include her Embarrassing Middle Name. Or so they assume. It's possible that Sandy altered their forms.
  • Do Not Pass Go: There's a message left like this by Westing when the person in charge of opening the envelopes with his messages inside is late in opening the next envelope. It essentially tells the players where to go with the addition of, "Do not collect $200."
  • Eat the Evidence: Turtle consumes their clues after she and Flora have memorized them.
  • Eccentric Millionaire: Sam Westing.
  • Embarrassing Middle Name: Grace Wexler has a tendency to list her maiden name as "Windsor" instead of "Windkloppel." Sam Westing also had "Windkloppel" as his last name before he changed it for commercial reasons.
  • Eureka Moment: Turtle has a very quiet one during the trial. There were also earlier examples, such as Sydelle realizing the clue words formed "America the Beautiful" and Ford realizing Westing had played them with the "Queen's Sacrifice". Numerous Red Herring examples occur also as the various pairs have "breakthroughs" with their clues that they think are the answer. (Examples: "Ed Purple-fruit!", Turtle thinking the clues are the names of stock options they should invest in, Theo thinking the clues form Amber's name and the chemical formula for an explosive...)
  • Exposition Party: The dinner party Ford throws for all the heirs reveals a lot about each of them to the reader, even as they're trying and largely failing to learn much of any use about each other.
  • Faking the Dead: Sam Westing. TWICE.
  • Flat Character:
    • Mr. and Mrs. Theodorakis, who barely appear and, outside one Backstory conversation, have hardly any lines.
    • Doug Hoo doesn't have much character either, aside from resenting his dad's constant nagging to "go study".
  • Game Between Heirs: The main premise. Samuel W. Westing chose sixteen people apparently at random as his heirs; the book opens with them summoned to hear the reading of the will. He leaves everything to the winner of the puzzle he calls The Westing Game. Who will win?
  • Generation Xerox/Mistaken Identity: Angela's Arranged Marriage echoes Violet Westing's, which at one point causes The Ophelia Crow to think she is Violet, and to treat her like a daughter all the same. Considering Grace may actually be related to Westing after all, this may not be far from the truth.
  • The Glorious War of Sisterly Rivalry: Subverted; Turtle and Angela seem to be the textbook Smart One and Popular One, respectively, but they're closer to each other and probably understand each other better than anyone else, and Turtle probably has more friends than Angela, while Angela is very smart herself.
    • Turtle is one of the few characters (along with Pulaski, Ford and Westing) who works out that Angela was the bomber after Angela pulls an about-to-explode bomb away from Turtle and towards her own face. Turtle then claims to be the bomber to protect Angela (which is what everyone else thought anyway), going as far as to plant the fourth bomb.
  • The Greatest Story Never Told: The winner never tells anyone else that the game was won, nor what the answer was.
  • Haunted House: The Westing mansion, supposedly.
  • Hidden Depths: Applies to nearly every character.
  • Hidden Purpose Test: The entire will.
  • Insufferable Genius: Dr. Deere starts off as one, insisting on diagnosing all the guests despite only being an intern. He gets better.
  • Irony: For the entire book, Grace claims she is the only true heir of Sam Westing. With her maiden/middle name having been "Windkloppel", the same as Westing's real name, it seems she, and by extension Angela and Turtle, are the only actual blood relatives among the heirs. (In fact, Westing/Sandy/Eastman calls Grace "my niece" during the epilogue.)
  • It Amused Me: The entire plot amused Sam Westing. As just one example among many, although he chose sixteen people as his "heirs" who (seemingly) had nothing to do with him or each other, he rather tongue-in-cheekly calls them his "sixteen nieces and nephews" in the will...even though most of them were the wrong age, or race!
    • However, Westing does call Grace "my niece" in the epilogue.
  • It Makes Sense in Context: The "trial" conducted to prove Crow's innocence consists of a judge dressing in native African garb (because Ford had decided to let her hair down and be Not So Stoic) and a prosecuting attorney who is both an annoying little girl and (it's believed) a confessed bomber, in a courtroom that's just an apartment. Lampshaded by Ford herself.
  • It's the Journey That Counts: Although no one wins the game or inherits the fortune (except Turtle), everyone's lives become better for having been part of it and the Character Development they gained from it. As Chris said of the Odd Couple pairings, "Everyone was paired with the perfect partner, given exactly who they needed" though they didn't know it at the start.
  • The Judge: Josie-Jo Ford, who in the book is identified as the first female and/or black person elected to a judgeship in the state.
    • And possibly the first black woman to sit on the United States Supreme Court, according to the epilogue.
  • Karmic Jackpot: Westing set up the game to give this to all the players.
  • Lame Pun Reaction: Grace Wexler provokes one when she decides to rename James Hoo's restaurant "Hoo's On First". James understandably complains that his restaurant is on the top floor of the tower, and that people who come looking for Hoo's On First might just assume that the Theodorakis coffee shop (which actually is in the lobby) is it.
  • Little Girls Kick Shins: Kicking shins is a major emotional defense mechanism for Turtle, which becomes important to the plot because several clues involve people limping.
  • Loads and Loads of Characters: Every character has a role to play.
  • Location Theme Naming: Windy Windkloppel and his various aliases scattering to the four winds... WESTing, NORTHrup, EASTman, and McSOUTHers.
  • Lost in Translation: "The heir who wins the windfall will be the one who finds the..."
  • Madness Mantra: "purple waves" supposedly was for the ghost story told at the start of the book.
  • Meaningful Name: "I am Berthe Erica Crow. I am the answer and I am the winner."
  • Missed the Call: It's revealed that Sydelle Pulaski was the "mistake". The intended heir was a person named Sybil Pulaski, but the PI screwed up and found Sydelle instead.
  • Never One Murder: Westing's suspicious death kicks the plot into action, followed by Sandy's death later. Subverted, as there was really only one "victim", and he didn't actually die either time: both deaths were staged as part of the Game.
  • Nonindicative Name: The windows of Sunset Towers face east, the direction in which the sun rises. Lampshaded in the very first sentence.
  • Not So Stoic: J.J. Ford deliberately embraces this trope so people will take her seriously.
  • Obfuscating Stupidity: Otis Amber, Sandy
  • Odd Couple: The players are paired up, usually with someone they seemingly have nothing in common with.
  • Odd Friendship: The result of several Odd Couple teams.
  • One Degree of Separation: While at first it seems none of the heirs have anything in common, or even a reason to be heirs, it turns out every character or their family does have a connection to the Westings. Grace and her family are actually related; Theo and Chris's father dated Violet Westing; Flora Baumbach made Violet's wedding dress; Ford's family worked for Westing and he put her through school; Hoo was a competitor who blamed Westing for stealing his invention; Crow was Westing's wife; Amber had worked for Westing as a detective; and Sandy supposedly worked at the Westing factory; The lone exception is Sydelle Pulaski, and that is because she was confused for a friend of Crow's named Sybil Pulaski.
  • Only in It for the Money: Applies to most of the heirs at the start (once they find out why they have been summoned, that is). By the end, most of them have realized other things are more important, to the point that very few are that upset they lost the game. It doesn't hurt that each pair receives $10,000 at the beginning and end of the game just for playing.
  • Only Sane Man: Ed Plum seems to think he's this when compared to the heirs, particularly when Ford and Turtle call their gathering a "court" to which he must submit the rest of the will before fleeing Sunset Towers. Among the heirs, Dr. Deere often acts like he's this; if anyone actually is, though, it's Judge Ford.
  • Playing Sick: Sydelle Pulaski and her "wasting disease."
  • Pretty in Mink: Grace Wexler during the reading of the will.
  • Private Detective: Judge Ford hires one to investigate the other heirs, in hope of figuring out what Westing was up to. The detective is Otis Amber, who's secretly been working for Westing (under two names) as well as Judge Ford.
  • Rear Window Witness: Not a crime, but Chris is a witness to Sikes going into the Westing House just before Westing's body is discovered, thanks to his bird-watching.
  • Red Herring: A number of them many planted by Sandy/Westing himself.
  • Running Gag: Many, such as Dr. Deere incorrectly and/or sententiously diagnosing people's illnesses, Sydelle's crutches, "Boom!", Turtle kicking shins, "Windkloppel"...and almost every one ended up being relevant and important!
  • Scare Dare: Turtle accepts one to stay overnight in the Westing mansion.
  • Scars Are Forever: Angela keeps the scar she gets from shielding Turtle from the third bomb.
  • Small Name, Big Ego: Grace Wexler, probably others too.
  • Small Reference Pools: Used by the characters; except for one joke vote, everyone thinks the quote "May God thy gold refine" comes from either Shakespeare or the Bible. It's actually from a lesser-known verse of "America the Beautiful", and is a clue.
  • Smart People Play Chess: Sam Westing, Judge Ford, and T.R. Wexler, the only person ever to beat Westing at his own game.
  • Snowed-In: The inhabitants of Sunset Towers are snowed in for several days early in the Game, leaving them with a lot of time on their hands to ponder the clues and get paranoid about each other.
  • Solve the Soup Cans: The closest thing to a pure literature example.
  • Spotting the Thread:
    • Sandy's limp, when Turtle knew she had never kicked him gave away he was actually Barney Northrup.
    • Also, when Theo has Doug spy on the chessboard for him to learn that his secret opponent is actually Sandy. Not only is this fact in and of itself strange since Sandy had claimed not to know how to play the game, but Theo's supposed winning move is actually Westing's classic "Queen's Sacrifice", thus letting Ford realize who Sandy was.
  • Stepford Smiler: Angela Wexler and Flora Baumbach
  • Sticky Fingers: Madame Hoo steals random objects from other heirs in hopes of raising money for a return to China. She confesses in the middle of Turtle's trial (she thought the meeting had to do with plans to capture her) and returns the things she stole.
  • Taking the Heat: The bomber was Angela, but Turtle willingly takes the blame to protect her sister.
  • The Tape Knew You Would Say That: At several points during the will reading, the will responds to the reactions of the heirs. Apart from a couple of interruptions that were staged by Westing himself in the role of Sandy, no explanation is given beyond the implication that Westing had studied them all closely enough to predict their reactions.
    • "Sit down, Grace Windsor Wexler!"
    • "Sit down, your honor, and read the letter this brilliant young attorney will now hand over to you."
  • Tech Marches On: Westing's game simply wouldn't have been workable in the internet era. Most teams' sets of clues would cough up the right song title on page one of a Google search.
  • Themed Aliases: The big reveal surrounds someone's aliases selected by this trope: the eponymous Mr. Westing was one of four aliases all with names containing a cardinal direction.
  • Tomboy and Girly Girl: Turtle and Angela Wexler, respectively.
  • Too Clever by Half:
    • Turtle. Including when she outsmarts herself, such as assuming the clues are stock options and the will's directive to "Buy Westing Paper Products!" is to be taken literally.
    • Sydelle makes similar mistakes at times.
  • Trademark Favorite Food: James Hoo eats plenty of chocolate bars during the course of the novel, because of his ulcer.
  • Trailers Always Spoil: The back cover proclaims that only two people have all the clues to the mystery: a Westing heir and you (the reader). This gives away the fact that one of the heirs is secretly Sam Westing himself.
  • Two Aliases, One Character: Zig-zagged with four aliases.
  • The Unchosen One: Literal example: Sydelle Pulaski is only included among the heirs by accident, yet she's also the one who figures out the clues are song lyrics.
  • The Unfavorite: Turtle is ignored and insulted by her mother because she's not an obedient girly girl like Angela.
  • Unfortunate Name: Windkloppel, which neither Grace Wexler nor Sam Westing cared to admit to. Ed Plum's otherwise-inoffensive name gets him singled out as a suspect by one of the teams.
  • The Unreveal:
    • During the reading of the will, Sandy McSouthers makes a joke, cutting off the lawyer before the last word in the third section is read. We never do find out what the last word is... because there is no last word; the will only reads, "The one who wins the windfall will be the one who finds the... FOURTH;" referring to the fourth identity of Westing himself.
    • A more minor one: the cross necklace Turtle takes with her to ward away vampires when she explores the Westing House gets lost and left behind; as a result it's later assumed to be one of the items stolen by Madame Hoo. Turtle sees it, inexplicably, held in the hands of Westing's corpse at the reading of the will, but no one else notices it. It's never mentioned in the article about the discovery of Westing's body, and after it being noted as not among the returned items, it's forgotten about completely.
  • Wham Line: "Please place your gun in the custody of the court."
  • What an Idiot: Invoked in-story, and self-inflicted, when Ford realizes that she (and everyone but Turtle) had fallen for Westing's "Queen's Sacrifice" again, this time in a non-chess setting.
  • "Where Are They Now?" Epilogue: The last three chapters detail significant events the heirs experienced during the twenty years after the solution.
  • Why Waste a Wedding?: Grace Wexler spends a large part of the story making elaborate preparations for the wedding of her daughter Angela, unaware that Angela is having major second thoughts. In the end, the preparations are instead used for the wedding of Crow and Otis Amber.
  • The Windy City: Sandy's file on the Hoo family says that James hails from Chicago.
  • Xanatos Speed Chess: Bordering on Gambit Roulette. Westing pretty much manipulated everyone, but as Sandy points out he did make at least one mistake by including Sydelle Pulaski. Of course, Westing is Sandy...
    • Turtle's "trial" suggests she's developing a talent for this trope, too.

Tropes unique to the 1997 TV movie include:

  • Adaptation Name Change:
    • Mr. Hoo's first name changed from "James" to "George".
    • Grace's maiden name has changed from "Windkloppel" to "Klopplehoff". She also doesn't use a fake maiden name, and admits to Turtle that she felt disgusted when Sam Westing dropped that name.
  • Adaptation Personality Change: Otis doesn't act as naïve as he did in the book. He also has a grudge against Sam Westing for taking credit for one of his inventions, similar to James Hoo's reason in the book for mistrusting Westing.
  • Adaptational Heroism: Grace doesn't treat Turtle as The Unfavorite.
  • Adaptational Villainy: Slight examples for Sandy McSouthers and Sam Westing. The former less acts innocent in this version-as one example, note how more certain he sounds that the will means one of the players murdered Westing. Additionally, Westing forced his and Crow's daughter into the Arranged Marriage, and made Crow the prime suspect of the game because he felt bitter at her, for not trying to cancel the marriage before their child became Driven to Suicide.
  • Adapted Out: The movie lacks Madame Hoo, Theo Theodorakis, and Flora Baumbach (pairing Turtle with Chris as a result). It also changed some of the remaining heirs' personalities and motivations.
  • Ascended Extra: Ed Plum replaces Dr. Deere as Angela's fiancée.
  • Demoted to Extra: The increased focus on Turtle and Chris makes this affect all the other heirs to a degree, but Jake Wexler, Doug Hoo, and Dr. Deere in particular don't even get to play the game. The doctor only appears once in the whole movie.
  • Eureka Moment: Turtle realizes that the clues could form a song by putting "fruited" and "plain" together.
  • Famous Last Words: When Sandy "drops dead" after the reading of the second half of the will, he whispers to Turtle, "You've been playing the wrong game." This prompts Turtle to read the will herself, and discover the real goal: "The heir who wins the windfall will be the one who finds the fourth."
  • Flash Forward: As Turtle and Mr. Eastman discuss how positively the game seems to have impacted the heirs' lives and relationships, Eastman lets Turtle know what bright futures he hopes they will all have (eg, Angela graduating medical school, Chris becoming a champion chess player, Otis and Crow getting married), and asks Turtle to tell him when they come true.
  • Market-Based Title: The home video release was renamed Get a Clue!.
  • The Summation: Turtle gives one to Julian Eastman as she explains how she figured out his alter egos, with clips of the movie illustrating for the viewers.
  • Technology Marches On: Chris' main hobby has changed from birdwatching to computing. He and Turtle have a special program for compiling out the clues they collect, and some of the book's Chess Motifs become incorporated in a virtual chess game between Chris and Sam Westing.

Ramona QuimbyNewbery MedalJacob Have I Loved
The Western MysteriesChildren's LiteratureWestmark
Well WorldLiterature of the 1970sWhat Dreams May Come
The Western MysteriesMystery LiteratureWho Censored Roger Rabbit?
Weird-OhsAdministrivia/Needs a Better DescriptionThe Witches of Eastwick

alternative title(s): The Westing Game
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