On the Fourth of July, a sixty-two-year-old delivery boy distributes six letters to a group of hand-picked “tenants-to-be” at Sunset Towers, an empty, five-story, “glittery” apartment house on the shore of Lake Michigan. The letters are signed by Barney Northrup; in reality, there is no such person by that name.
The Wexlers are the first to respond to their invitation. Grace Wexler is enchanted by the floor-to-ceiling glass in the living room and the lush carpeting throughout. She looks forward to showing off the new apartment to her “so-called friends...with their classy houses.” Her unimpressed husband, Jake, says the third bedroom is the size of a closet, but Grace thinks it will do “just fine” for their younger daughter, Turtle.
The slick, buck-toothed salesman who masquerades as Barney Northrup manages to rent all the apartments in just one day. In addition to the Wexlers, the tenants include the Theodorakis and Hoo families, Flora Baumbach, Sydelle Pulaski, and Judge J. J. Ford. Dr. Wexler will have his office on the first floor, alongside a coffee shop run by the Theodorakises. Mr. James Shin Hoo will open a restaurant on the fifth floor.
In early September, the residents of Sunset Towers move in. A few weeks later, on Halloween, Otis Amber, the sixty-two-year-old delivery boy, meets a group that includes two high school seniors, Theo Theodorakis, Doug Hoo, and the apartment doorman, Sandy McSouthers. He points out that smoke is coming from the chimney of the nearby, supposedly unoccupied Westing mansion. Sam Westing, who owns the mansion, the apartment building, and the town’s paper mill, has not been seen for years, and rumor has it that his dead body is rotting away in the old house. Sandy feels bitter about having been fired from his job at the mill and says this “serves [Westing] right.” As the group standing on the driveway discusses the situation, junior-high student Turtle Wexler comes riding up on her bike. Turtle is known...
(The entire section is 816 words.)
Under a full Halloween moon, Turtle, dressed in her witch costume, tentatively explores the blackness within the Westing mansion. According to Doug Hoo’s stopwatch, she lasts for eleven minutes before she exits the house, screaming. Summoned by a “throbbing whisper, ‘pur-ple...pur-ple,’” Turtle found the corpse of Samuel Westing lying in a four-poster bed on the second floor.
The next morning, Turtle sees a picture of the dead man on the front page of the newspaper under the headline “Sam Westing Found Dead.” Westing’s estate is estimated to be worth “over two hundred million dollars.” He is described as a “dedicated gamesman” who often played the part of Uncle Sam at the annual pageants he staged on the Fourth of July and who had a keen interest in fireworks, which he stored in his mansion and set off every year on his front lawn. The article goes on to describe the tragedies that marred Westing’s life. He was divorced from his wife, and his only daughter, Violet, drowned on the eve of her wedding. As a businessman, Westing was sued by a fellow inventor “over rights to the disposable paper diaper.” Sam Westing had not been seen in recent times. After being severely injured and reportedly disfigured in an automobile accident several years previously with his friend, Doctor Sidney Sikes, Sam Westing had “disappeared from sight.” It was rumored that he continued to control the vast Westing Corporation from a small island in the South Seas. Julian Eastman, the Chief Executive Officer of the company, expressed surprise and sadness upon learning of his death.
There is no mention of how or by whom the body was found. Only four people know Turtle had been in the house—Doug Hoo, Theo Theodorakis, Otis Amber, and Sandy McSouthers. The next day, Otis Amber delivers letters to sixteen residents of Sunset Towers, telling them they have been named beneficiaries of Sam Westing’s estate and summoning them to a...
(The entire section is 719 words.)
Attorney E. J. Plum has never actually met Samuel Westing, but he testifies as to the legality of the will, which has been signed by the deceased and two witnesses—Julian R. Eastman, President of the Westing Corporation, and Doctor Sidney Sikes, the county coroner. In the document, Westing names the sixteen heirs present as his “nieces and nephews” and says that tomorrow his ashes “will be scattered to the four winds.” He then asserts that his life has been taken by one of his heirs, and he promises that the heir who finds something will receive the inheritance. What the players are supposed to find is never stated because, to lighten the mood at that point, Sandy shouts out facetiously, “Ashes!” Attorney Plum does not go back to clarify what, exactly, the winner will need to find.
The next point, which has a patriotic flavor, reads:
Hail to thee, O land of opportunity! You have made me, the son of poor immigrants, rich, powerful, and respected....Take stock in America...and sing in praise of this generous land. You, too, may strike it rich who dares to play the Westing game.
The heirs are then asked to say a silent prayer for “good old Uncle Sam” and are directed into the adjoining game room.
Upon entering the game room, Theo Theodorakis’s attention is drawn to a finely carved chess set laid out on a table. Noticing that someone has moved a white pawn, he idly makes a defensive move with a black knight. E. J. Plum then calls everyone to attention, and he begins to read the next section of Samuel Westing’s will.
The rules of the Westing game are simple. The sixteen players will be divided into eight teams; each pair will receive ten thousand dollars and a set of clues. Absent pairs will forfeit their money, and if one member of a team drops out, his or her partner must leave as well. The object of the game is “to win.”
Jake Wexler and Mrs. Hoo are immediately disqualified as...
(The entire section is 820 words.)
A blizzard strikes that night, leaving the residents of Sunset Towers “snowbound—with a murderer.” The electricity is out, and Turtle takes advantage of the situation by selling homemade, gaily striped candles left over from summer camp; the candles tell time: each stripe burns for half an hour. Sydelle Pulaski receives numerous invitations to coffee and afternoon tea from players hoping she will share her shorthand copy of the will with them. None of them get what they are seeking.
Sydelle takes Angela over to visit Chris Theodorakis, who is looking in a book at a picture of various grains and is delighted with the company. The boy sees that Sydelle limps, but he recognizes her disability as a pretend limp; she...
(The entire section is 808 words.)
Jake and Grace Wexler are the first to arrive at J. J. Ford’s party. The judge asks Mrs. Wexler how she is related to the Westing family and decides that the woman is nothing more than a “prattling pretender” when her answer is confused and evasive. Other guests come in, and Jake goes over to talk to his daughter, Angela. The young girl cringes when he immediately asks about Denton Deere; it seems that, in the eyes of others, she has no identity apart from her fiancé.
The only people at the party who are not Westing heirs are George and Catherine Theodorakis, the parents of Theo and Chris. Theo in particular bears a startling resemblance to his father; they are both wide shouldered and slim waisted and they have...
(The entire section is 798 words.)
While repairs are being made at the coffee shop, the snowbound residents of Sunset Towers eat their dinners at Shin Hoo’s Restaurant. Unbeknownst to them, the bomber has planted a second bomb in the kitchen of the fifth-floor establishment and set it to go off at six-thirty. Grace Wexler has signed on as the seating hostess to help out her partner, whom she addresses with inappropriate familiarity as Jimmy. Pleased with her new position of power, she decides to have fun pairing off the diners in unexpected ways, which results in a number of interesting interactions.
Theo Theodorakis finds himself seated at a table with the beautiful Angela Wexler; the two manage to overcome their initial shyness and end up sharing...
(The entire section is 851 words.)
By Friday of that week, the snow begins to melt at last. Sandy, Doug, Theo, Turtle, and Otis Amber stand in the driveway again, discussing the Westing game. Otis believes there is no murderer, but Theo is not so sure. At the Wexler apartment, Grace is never home, so Jake goes to visit her at Shin Hoo’s Restaurant. After ignoring her husband at first, Grace finally comes over only to discuss an idea she has; she thinks the restaurant needs a more interesting name. She suggests Hoo’s on First. James Hoo thinks the name is “idiotic,” and Jake privately agrees with him, but to placate his wife he says it is “a dandy name.”
J. J. Ford shares with Sandy some information she has secured about Sam Westing’s...
(The entire section is 824 words.)
Flora Baumbach, now affectionately called Baba, fixes Turtle’s braid every day and gives her the love and attention she craves. Flora calls Turtle by her chosen name, Alice, and talks about her own daughter, Rosalie, whose untimely passing has clearly left an aching void in her life.
Sandy McSouthers and Josie-Jo Ford continue to compile information about each of the heirs in a notebook. They know that Flora Baumbach had a mentally challenged daughter who died tragically. She had also made a wedding gown for Violet Westing, although the bride-to-be never got to wear it. Sandy and J. J. have little information connecting Otis Amber and Denton Deere to Sam Westing other than that Otis is the delivery boy for Westing’s...
(The entire section is 861 words.)
Sandy McSouthers and J. J. Ford have only themselves left to investigate, and they do so cursorily. Sandy has a large family, but Sam Westing fired him from his job at the mill with no pension. Josie-Jo Ford’s parents were servants at the Westing mansion, and J. J. was not allowed to associate with the Westings’s daughter, Violet. Instead, Sam Westing sent her away to all the best schools. J. J remembers playing chess with Westing; he always won, and he used the unusual strategy of sacrificing his queen to distract his opponent from his true intent.
Theo has figured out that Angela is the bomber, and Turtle is concerned. To save Angela from being identified and punished, Turtle writes a note implicating herself and...
(The entire section is 812 words.)
Flora Baumbach and Turtle, sporting a new haircut, wait for the other players to arrive in the game room of the Westing mansion. Flora shows Turtle a picture of her daughter, Rosalie. Turtle is surprised to discover that the child Baba always speaks about so lovingly was severely afflicted with Downs’ Syndrome. Amazed at the depth of feeling Flora clearly has for her daughter, Turtle observes genuinely, “I think I would have liked her, Baba.”
Many of the players comment on Turtle’s hair as they enter, but Theo goes straight to the chessboard. He sees that someone has moved a piece since they were here last, and he makes a countermove. Grace Wexler is uncharacteristically mellow—and very tipsy; she has spent...
(The entire section is 861 words.)
Crow has been arrested. In the wake of the extraordinary events that have occurred, the remaining players sit in stunned disbelief. Turtle laments Sandy’s death, and Denton Deere, who had noticed a mean bruise on the stricken man’s shin, remarks that she should not have kicked him. Turtle denies having done so, insisting that the only person she has kicked recently was Barney Northrup. Doug Hoo observes that Sandy McSouthers was the mysterious individual playing chess with Theo, who in turn notes that the former doorman’s last move had been a foolish one and resulted in the loss of his queen.
As Judge Ford remembers that the “queen’s sacrifice” was a deception Sam Westing liked to use to defeat her when she...
(The entire section is 846 words.)
Crow is released from custody. In the final page of the will, Sam Westing admits to having been “otherwise known as Sandy McSouthers and others.” He leaves the title to Sunset Towers to all of his heirs to share among themselves, and he leaves three ten-thousand-dollar checks in game money to his former wife, Berthe Erica Crow. No mention is made of the promised two hundred million dollars. When some of the players grumble about this, J. J. Ford succintly explains, “We lost the game.” Outside, a fantastic “fireworks extravaganza” begins, and when it is over, the infamous Westing house burns to the ground.
In the morning, Turtle sets out secretly to collect her prize. She goes to meet the “newly-elected...
(The entire section is 854 words.)