The bookie (short for "bookmaker", the name for a person who takes illegal bets) is, shockingly, none other than the respected podiatrist, Dr. Wexler. The bomber, perhaps even more surprisingly, is his shy, quiet, "perfect" daughter Angela. The mistake is the secretary Sydelle Pulaski, whose name was mistaken by Otis Amber for the intended heir, a woman named Sybil Pulaski. The burglar is Madame Hoo, who in her non-English-speaking isolation is misguidedly stealing trinkets to sell in order to get enough money to go back to China. Each of these people (even Ms Pulaski) is struggling with various issues which are eventually resolved through the personal interactions made possible by Sam Westing's game. Dr. Wexler is far more interested in gambling (legal or otherwise) than he is in medicine. He goes onto a different career after the game. Angela, a quiet girl who has always wanted to go to college, would prefer studying to marrying the young up-and-coming Dr. Deere. She sets the bombs in order to derail her mother's relentless plans for her early marriage. Sydelle Pulaski craves attention, and through the game she gains money and confidence, which eventually leads to her marriage and the personal contact she wants. Madame Hoo's depression becomes evident to her family during the game, and the discovery of her kleptomania leads to better understanding between her and her husband.
Ellen Raskin's rather humorous mystery novel centers on sixteen "heirs" to a fortune who must discover the murderer of Sam Westing, an industry magnate. In order to do so, they must play the mysterious Westing game and determine the culprit in order to win a huge inheritance.
Before the so-called heirs are convened, these tenants of the Sunset Towers--which ironically face East--have been sold apartments by Barney Northrup. The narrator describes the "specially selected tenants" as
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. Barney Northrup had rented one of the apartments to the wrong person.
- The bookie is Dr. Wexler, the podiatrist, who becomes fixated on gambling.
- The burglar is Mrs. Hoo, the second wife of the restaranteur who pilfers in order to save enough to return to China.
- The bomber is Angela Wexler who sets a bomb on herself, perhaps, to mar her beauty so that others will perceive her in more than a superficial way.
- The mistake is Sydelle Pulaski. She is a mistake because it was Sybil Pulaski that the private investigator Otis Amber was to have selected; he simply read the name wrong.
The sixteen people who are selected are paired with another and given $10,000 and a set of clues with which they must discover who murdered Sam Westing. The winner will be the one who perceives qualities in people beyond first impressions. Westing's elaborate puzzle serves a real purpose in that it changes the lives of many of the characters in a positive way, underpinning the theme of the redemptive power of love. Each pair in the Westing puzzle profits spiritually from working on the puzzle and interacting with another person.