14 November 2006

Better Than The Westing Game

When it comes to Ellen Raskin mystery novels involving word games, multimillion-dollar inheritances derived from household products, inappropriate engagements, assumed identities, sudden deaths, an epilogue stretching years into the future, and children and adults detecting together, I'm fondest of The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel). Yes, I like it better than The Westing Game.

I'm not claiming that The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) is clearly better than Raskin's Newbery-winner. The Westing Game is more sophisticated. Its cast is bigger, rounder, and more diverse, with tougher issues to deal with alongside the mystery. There are more layers to its narrative and its mystery (in large part because it's a puzzle deliberately crated to deceive rather than a set of mysterious circumstances). The Westing Games can also boast a swell online archive of Raskin's notes and manuscript, which the University of Wisconsin set up a few years ago.

Nevertheless, I have strong nostalgic feelings about The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel). As I commented on The Magic of Books months back, I think the many devoted fans of The Westing Game could do a lot worse than to check out her first novel. What precisely makes me prefer the earlier book?

1) THE TIMING. My paperback copy of The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) was printed in 1973, the year I became a "middle reader." The Westing Game was published in 1978, the year I became a teenager. So the first book became available just when I was ready for it, and the latter as I was growing out of kids' mysteries. I liked it, but it didn't grab me and hold on.

Furthermore, The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) is very much of its time--of my childhood's time. It takes place in a New York City when a bunch of shaggy-haired, jeans-wearing hippies are ready to protest at the drop of a hat. Not that I've ever lived in New York or ran with such a crowd, but I liked the idea that they'd be available if ever I needed someone sprung from a pesthole of a jail.

2) THE GRAPHICS. Until this book, Raskin had been creating delightful picture books in her unique graphic style: Spectacles, And It Rained, Nothing Ever Happens on My Block. As part of her transition to novelist, she created drawings to start each chapter of The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel).

Furthermore, those drawings incorporate typographical elements, which have long fascinated me. The characters' bodies are made up of words and phrases important in the following chapter. The central character's flowered dress and upholstery are rendered in asterisks.

3) THE FOOTNOTES. Reading the book last week, I realized that they're a forebear of Lemony Snicket's authorial interjections.

4) THE FARCE. The plot of The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) is undoubtedly silly, the central character undoubtedly flat (in E. M. Forster's sense) and immature. In real life, she'd never get to adopt twins; she'd be referred to therapy instead. But now that we're all adults, do the characters in The Westing Game behave any more realistically, especially Mr. Westing himself? At least The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) doesn't take itself so seriously.


Somedayangeline said...

Hi, I'm a librarian in Michigan that also had very fond memories of The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel). Not only was it a clever mystery with great characters, but it's incredibly quotable, and has a certain darkness to its humor that still appeals to me as an adult. I also highly suggest The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues by Ms. Raskin. I'm always plesantly surprised when I find others who appreciate this title, since it is obviously not as celebrated as The Westing Game.

J. L. Bell said...

On rerearing The Mysterious Disappearance of Leon (I Mean Noel) just now, I was delighted at how well Raskin used little details and bits of dialogue as recurring refrains. Just a joy.