I almost feel like this doesn’t need to be said but I’ll say it anyway. This isn’t a review; it’s a critical piece that deals with text specific examples. In other words there WILL be spoilers.
“An artist speaks from personal experiences, knowledge and beliefs, and rarely gets to see the finished piece. The work is completed by the viewer’s own intelligence and emotions.” — Peggy Kingsbury
At the time of this writing Steve Mosby’s The 50/50 Killer has just been nominated for a Barry Award. There isn’t a more deserving book and it continues to surprise that Mosby doesn’t yet have a U.S. deal for his books. Hopefully the timing of this review will bring his work to wider attention. And maybe even those who have already read the book will have to reevaluate their reading experience.
One of the great strengths of how the events in The 50/50 Killer unfold and then conclude is how they successfully operate on different levels. There are two distinctly different endings to the book. Which one the reader takes away will depend on what the reader invests in the experience. Specifically, it’s the fate of Eileen, wife of John Mercer that is being discussed here.
The surface level reading shows that Eileen lives. That she leaves John Mercer, and more specifically, the house, after the phone call with Hunter. So she isn’t even there at the house when the 50/50 killer shows up. The broken window in the upper room comes about as the 50/50 killer strikes it in anger and the blood is from his hand. All of this is shown to us in a hazy dream state as Eileen sleeps soundly, and safely, at her sister’s home across town.
Given the importance of the information that it contains it’s this dream state that is the cornerstone of the end of the book. But a careful, and more critical, reading of Eileen’s dream reveals her true fate, that the 50/50 killer killed her.
What follows will be an overview of the events that take place at the end of the book. This will lay the proper groundwork for the analysis of Eileen’s dream. Based on available reviews and discussions of the book the general consensus is that Eileen lives.
I intend to prove that Eileen dies.
It’s near the end of the book that we get a section told from the point of view of the 50/50 killer himself, we get to hear his ‘voice’. The first thing of importance is that the parameters of the game as final confrontation are outlined and that Mercer is named as the opponent. This is a dynamic that has been set up for the reader from the beginning but this is the first time that it has been explicitly stated.
-To honor his promise, would John Mercer be prepared to deny his purpose in the world? If he did, the devil would have removed an opponent. If he chose his job over his professions of love, the harvest would be rich. (p. 255)
Mercer’s purpose in the world, as established in the mind of the 50/50 killer, is to have the fruition of his earlier decision come to bear. To either choose love and not play the game (in other words to not take the case) or to take the case and cause Eileen’s death. Mercer may be an unknowing participant in this game but he is a participant none the less because of the effect that his decision will have on others.
The rich harvest that is mentioned in this section refers to a couple of things. First it refers to the final release of all of his captured experiences from those who he has tortured over the years. Secondly it refers to the ultimate experience of being killed by his nemesis, John Mercer.
-The real game was always against John Mercer. Either this nemesis would abandon the fight, or else his wife’s love would be ripped apart and taken down as penance. Either way, the test would have been passed. Perhaps then, finally, the devil would be allowed to go home. (255)
In this section we see that the 50/50 killer intends to rip Mercers wife’s love apart as penance. For love to come from a person it stands to reason that that person must be alive, that one can love something dead but the dead cannot love. The surface level reading of Eileen’s dream state indicates that she is still alive by how she signed the letter to Mercer, ‘Love, always, E x x’. But that interpretation is predicated on the validity of the dream state.
For her love to be ripped apart she must be killed. Since we know already that Mercer didn’t abandon the fight then she was.
Following the 50/50 killer’s section is a Mark section. Marks sections are told in the first person setting him up as the reader’s main point of view character into the investigation, the world of the cops and the relationship dynamic of the group. As our gateway he is us.
-Then I saw it. I froze. One of the upstairs windows was cracked; there was a smear of blood on the glass. (258)
In this quote Mark’s gut feeling is proven correct as he sees the scene of Eileen’s death for the first time.
–He was stained with blood. His knife was covered. (258)
With this quote we see further evidence, albeit circumstantial, that the 50/50 killer murdered Eileen. Mosby makes a point of isolating the knife, and by extension the hand that holds it.
As stated already the surface reading, in conjunction with the dream state, could indicate that the hand holding the knife was the one that punched the window, the one that caused the window to crack and be bloodied. One does have to wonder though why the knife would be bloodied if it was his hand that struck the window.
The deeper reading provides for us one more clue that Eileen has been killed. This is literally the killing hand and the weapon that was used.
-Footsteps behind me, pounding up the path, the garden.
I looked up at the window, the cracked glass and the smears of blood. Eileen.
Mercer came plunging past me.
‘What have you done to her?’
I caught sight of his face, full of desperation and fear and hatred, and before I could do anything he was on Barnes, half kneeling, half falling, his hands grabbing at his head, his throat, pounding him, then gripping.
‘What have you done?’
-He had Barnes by the neck and was pulling him up, slamming him down again. Still shouting, screaming, his entire body tensed in concentration on hurting the man. Barnes was as lifeless as a doll: he went where he was slammed, his head loose on his neck. (264)
I’ve clipped this quote a bit for purposes of length.
Here we see Mercer’s arrival on the scene and his subsequent killing of the 50/50 killer. This is the final act of the game; the one that the 50/50 killer knew would take place once Mercer made his choice. The 50/50 killer knew that this act, his death, would be the inevitable outcome, and it was as he orchestrated. With his death all of the harvested experiences have been released, presumably to the ‘true father’ that has already been named in the 50/50 killer’s section of the book. (256)
“I try not to leave a clue more than once. It bothers me a lot when it is left more than once in somebody else’s book. If you told me once that the hero is left handed, I have registered it or at least I hope I have registered it or whatever this may be and if you told me five times then I feel that you are writing to somebody that is a lot dumber than I am.” — Gene Wolfe
I have already stated the importance of Eileen’s dream state to the book. Now let’s deal with it head on and take a closer look. As I have indicated the surface reading states simply that she is asleep, safe and sound, across town at her sister’s house, having a dream. It’s in this dream that key plot points are made about what happens when the 50/50 killer is inside the Mercer house.
The fact that this information is relayed to us in a dream suggests to us Eileen’s unreliability as a narrator at this moment. That alone isn’t enough to support my conclusion.
The simple fact that Eileen is dreaming tells us explicitly that she is dead because the only other character to have slept and dreamt in the book, Scott, was also killed by the 50/50 killer.
The linking of these two characters isn’t arbitrary or isolated and it certainly isn’t a coincidence. To further strengthen the link between these two characters, and to show that this was done deliberately, let’s take a closer look at both of their dreams.
EILEEN: Miles away, on the other side of the city, Eileen slept (265)
SCOTT: His dreams had given up all pretense of dressing his memories in brighter clothes; the artifice had been stripped away. (245)
Both Eileen and Scott are the only two characters to sleep and dream.
EILEEN: The dream was the same one she’d been having earlier, before she was woken by Hunter’s phone call. In it, she drifted around the house, noting all the absences, the clothes missing from the wardrobe, the books from the shelves. (265)
SCOTT: Now, as Scott slept, he was simply there again: back in the stone outhouse in the woods, perched on that awkward seat, cramped and tortured, with the man in the devil mask squatting down in front of him. (245)
In their dreams both Eileen and Scott dream of the place of their death.
EILEEN: Asleep in her sister’s spare room, Eileen rolled over and stretched her arm out across the empty side of her bed. And finally, she dreamed of nothing at all.
SCOTT: Even this was slowly fading. He closed his eyes and listened as the noise of the sea grew dimmer.
And as Scott died, it told him very gently: Shhhhh. (249)
Both Eileen and Scott dream of nothing at the moment of their death.
The above examples show that by paralleling their dreams in key ways Mosby has effectively linked Eileen to Scott, one of the more prominent of the 50/50 killer’s victims, and the strength of the link proves her death. That the 50/50 killer manages to claim just one more victim after his death is like a final crime committed against the reader after the story has been completed.
Part of what makes the ending(s) so great is that both versions work independently from each other. The one you want is the one that you will take away.
In The 50/50 Killer Steve Mosby makes full use of a wide range of tools to hide the true fate of Eileen in plain sight and in the process write one of the great crime fiction novels of the new century. By challenging his readers and requiring them to directly engage the material Mosby continues to set the bar high with his fiction. In terms of quality, original and intelligently executed fiction Mosby has quietly taken his place as one of the best crime fiction writers we have.