Ernest Hemingway’s “The Killers,” first published in Scribner’s magazine in 1927 and included in his collection Men without Women, which came out later the same year, has everything the Hemingway reader wants and has come to expect. The mood is one of subtle danger and action; the dialogue is snappy and terse; the style is pure Hemingway; Nick Adams is a featured character; the story has a modern, one-man-alone-against-the-world feel; and it includes one of the hallmark Hemingway openings.
Hemingway completed the story in Madrid a couple of years before its publication. The plot begins in medias res, establishing a pattern of action while suggesting that the action has been ongoing long before the telling of the story begins:
The door of Henry’s lunch-room opened and two men came in. They sat down at the counter.
“What’s yours?” George asked them.
“I don’t know,” one of the men said.
“What do you want to eat, Al?”
“I don’t know,” said Al. “I don’t know what I want to eat.”
Outside it was getting dark. The street-light came on outside the window. The two men at the counter read the menu. From the other end of the counter Nick Adams watched them. He had been talking to George when they came in. (215)
It does not take the reader very long to decide that the two men are strangers. They are unfamiliar with the ordering process at the lunch counter and address the other characters in a condescending manner. And soon Nick and George learn that the two strangers have arrived in town to kill Ole Anderson, a boxer who is apparently hiding in the town. He often goes to the café at 6:00 p.m. to eat dinner, and the two plan on killing him when he arrives. In the meantime, Nick and the cook are tied up and kept quiet in the kitchen. When it becomes clear that Anderson is not going to show up for dinner, the two killers leave, and Nick, with the advice of George and against the advice of the cook, decides to go and warn Ole of their presence. Nick warns Ole, who decides to stay and face his killers alone instead of hiding or leaving town. At the end of the story, George tells Nick, who is disturbed by Ole’s apathy toward his coming death, to “not think about it” (222).
It could be argued that the dialogue (snappy and rough), the situation (a boxer mixed up with the mob), and the theme are all somewhat clichéd, and it is true that the story does have a 1930s gangster film feel about it. The opposite argument may suggest that Hemingway’s hard-boiled prose and plots influenced both the detective fiction/crime genre novels and the films of the 1930s. But what is intriguing about the story is something that the critics Cleanth Brooks, Jr., and Robert Penn Warren presented in their groundbreaking textbook Understanding Fiction (1943), which helped make the New Criticism a moving force in both university and even high school literature courses for decades. Brooks and Warren argue that Hemingway’s characters are often “tough . . . experienced . . . and apparently insensitive. . . . They are, also, usually defeated men.” But from this toughness, insensitivity, and defeat the characters “salvage something. And here we come upon Hemingway’s basic interest in such situations and such characters. They are not defeated expect by their own terms.” Ole Anderson, along with a host of Hemingway characters, is no exception. Instead of packing his bags and leaving town for his own health, Ole Anderson tells Nick that he “got in wrong” and that he is “through with all that running around” (221). Simply put, he is going to stay and face the music. We are not told exactly what Ole Anderson did to anger the big city mob, but we are left to assume that it involved fixing fights and that now he has to face the consequences of that decision. He is only going to be defeated on his own terms (ironically, Ole Anderson may have been taking dives in the ring).
Hemingway is able to create this sense of impending doom and subtle action and danger in his typical fashion—with a limited amount of description and a heavy dose of dialogue. Of the 232 indented paragraphs, only 26 contain no dialogue. Stereotypes (gangsters, black cooks) abound, but so do symbols (consider the towel in Nick’s mouth and the wall Ole turns toward when Nick tells him he is going to die). And at the same time, readers are led to sympathize with Anderson and especially with Nick, who by now is getting his first real taste of life and death that the big world has waiting for him and us all.
Benson, Jackson J., ed. New Critical Approaches to the Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway. Durham, N.C.: Duke University Press, 1991.
Bloom, Harold, ed. Ernest Hemingway: Modern Critical Views. New York: Chelsea House, 1985.
Brooks, Cleanth, Jr., and Robert Penn Warren. Understanding Fiction. Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice Hall, 1943.
Hemingway, Ernest. “The Killers.” In The Complete Short Stories of Ernest Hemingway: The Finca Vigía Edition. New York: Scribner, 1987.
Oliver, Charles M. Ernest Hemingway A to Z: The Essential Reference to the Life and Work. New York: Facts On File, 1999.
Tyler, Lisa. Student Companion to Ernest Hemingway. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2001.
Wagner-Martin, Linda, ed. Ernest Hemingway: Six Decades of Criticism. East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 1988.