A Clever Game of Murder

A Clever Game of Murder

Driving to Nashville last week, a friend asked me, “Why a mystery? Why choose to start your writing career with a cozy?”

Simple. There’s something viscerally satisfying about a mystery novel. We encounter murder, intrigue and misdirection. As in life, we face problems that seem to have no answers. Unlike in life, each death or mishap is (eventually) followed by a tidy, fulfilling resolution. And I discovered this gratification early in life within the pages of Ellen Raskin’s devilish The Westing Game.

A birthday gift from a relative, the book sat on my shelf for several months. Challenged to finish an unreachable number of books (let’s say, 10?) in the summer between 6th and 7th grades, I added the mystery to the top of my pile of mandatory after-dinner reading. That first night, my mother — a lifelong English teacher — let me stay up far past my bedtime as I wouldn’t put the book down. It was summer, she rationalized, and, more important, I was actually reading.

The mystery was a classic setup — dead tycoon, several heirs and a like number of suspects. The action was, for 1970s young adult literature, surprisingly gritty. The real hook, however, was the clever set up. It was a mystery and a puzzle. And that constituted a challenge.

Just after 3am, I finished the last page. I had failed; the mystery had escaped me. It was the most glorious failure in my short-to-that-point life. Why? The resolution was an epiphany. The answer was, in retrospect, obvious. It was right in front of me the entire time. How could I possibly miss it? It was defeat, but it was exhilarating. It was an intellectual thrill, and I was addicted.

From Raskin I moved on to Christie. My grandmother gifted me her extensive collection of Dame Agatha’s wickedly sharp English proto-cozies. From there I jumped to Marsh, Sayers, James and their like. I never, however, forgot Turtle and the death of Sam Westing.

Last month, I gifted a copy of The Westing Game to my niece. Already an avid reader, she dove in right after Thanksgiving and had the book devoured within a day. Also quite the talker, she raved — non-stop. Seeing my own excitement reflected in her enthusiasm for the book, I borrowed it back for a second read. Thirty years later, would the book hold up?

A few weeks ago, I wrote about those things in life we later revisit with disappointment. Our tastes change, our palettes mature and our outlooks expand. What we loved as children or teens often loses its luster when we circle back to old, almost-forgotten favorites. The Westing Game proved the exception to the rule.

The writing was crisp and description, appropriately straight-forward. The mystery still delighted and the resolution was satisfying. It scores on each of the classic cozy tropes without resorting to clichés. It is suitably structured for a young adult reader, yet complex and crafty enough for the casual adult mystery buff. My only regret was that I knew how it would end. The journey still proved deeply enjoyable.

As my career coalesces, I hope I can offer this same thrill to future readers. Whether they read one of my books once or perhaps even twice over the next 30 years, these readers deserve the same consternation and gratification that I felt reading — and re-reading — Raskin’s YA masterpiece. Yes, this sets the bar high, but why toil if not to aim for the stars.

And, if you haven’t yet met Turtle, Doug, Josie-Jo, Erica and the rest, do yourself a favor. Grab the book, put on your thinking cap and play along with this most devious game.

Love a good murder? Be sure to take a stab at Thou Shalt Not Kilt, a traditional Southern whodunnit with Scottish flavor. For my latest news and updates, follow me on Instagram and TikTok. Sign up for Fatal Fiction, my monthly mystery newsletter, and you’ll get a free download of Masters of Murder, my concise guide to the authors of mystery’s Golden Age.

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Masters of Murder by Liam Ashe