Hemingway, Ernest. "The Killers".
The Killers Enter: The story is set in the small town of Summit. Nick Adams is the only guest in Henry’s lunch room. He is chatting with the bartender George when two men enter. They are dressed like twins in black buttoned overcoats, derby hats, mufflers and gloves. They do not know what they want to eat. When they decide, they both choose from the dinner menu which is not available as yet. They are annoyed and angry when George informs them about this. Finally George offers them some sandwiches, which they accept. The two call themselves Al and Max respectively. They entertain themselves by humiliating George and Nick while their sandwiches are being prepared:
‘You’re a pretty bright boy, aren’t you?’
‘Sure,’ said George.
‘Well, you’re not,’ said the other little man. ‘Is he, Al?’
‘He’s dumb,’ said Al. He turned to Nick. ‘What’s your name?’
‘Another bright boy,’ Al said. ‘Ain’t he a bright boy, Max?’
‘The town’s full of bright boys,’ Max said. (p. 280)
The Killers Act: The men eat the sandwiches with their gloves on. When they are finished, they make Nick go behind the counter. Al pulls out a gun and leads Nick away to the kitchen. There he binds him together with the black cook Sam. Max meanwhile instructs George to say that the cook is out if there is any guest coming in. The men wait for a Swede named Ole Andreson who regularly eats his dinner at the place. They never saw him before but they plan to kill him on behalf of a friend of theirs. They wait for more than an hour, but Andreson does not arrive. They give up and decide to leave the hostages unharmed:
‘What about the two bright boys and the nigger?’
‘They’re all right.’
‘You think so?’
‘Sure. We’re through with it.’
‘I don’t like it,’ said Al. ‘It’s sloppy. You talk too much.’
‘Oh, what the hell,’ said Max. ‘We got to keep amused, haven’t we?’
‘You talk too much, all the same,’ Al said. (p. 285)
Nick Visits the Victim: When the killers leave, George releases Nick and Sam and removes the cloths from their mouths. The cook is frightened and puzzled by the incident. George suggests that Nick go to warn Andreson. The cook cautions Nick against mixing up, but Nick is ready to go. Andreson lives in Hirsch’s rooming-house. He is a former heavyweight prizefighter. Nick finds him lying on the bed in his clothes. Andreson is not surprised at the news. He knows that there are men after him but he is tired with running around and hiding from them. He has already resigned at his life, now he only cannot make his mind to leave the house:
Ole Andreson looked at the wall and did not say anything.
‘George thought I better come and tell you about it.’
‘There isn’t anything I can do about it,’ Ole Andreson said.
‘I’ll tell you what they were like.’
‘I don’t want to know what they were like,’ Ole Andreson said. He looked at the wall. ‘Thanks for coming to tell me about it.’ (p. 287)
Conclusion: Nick returns to Henry’s lunch room to inform George about the outcome of the visit. He wonders what Andreson could have done. George believes that Andreson must have mixed up in something in Chicago. Andreson probably double-crossed someone, which is the most common cause for killing a boxer. George dismisses the incident once it is over, but Nick cannot help himself thinking about it. The story concludes:
‘I’m going to get out of this town,’ Nick said.
‘Yes,’ said George. ‘That’s a good thing to do.’
‘I can’t stand to think about him waiting in the room and knowing he’s going to get it. It’s too damned awful.’
‘Well,’ said George, ‘you better not think about it.’ (p. 289)
From Ignorance to Experience: The story is narrated in the third person by an omniscient narrator who is however close to the consciousness of Nick Adams. It shows what looks like a first encounter of a young inexperienced man with the sordid business of the underworld. Different reactions to the incident are contrasted: the stupefying fear of the black cook, the sensible practicality of the bartender and the sensitivity and sincere concern for a fellow human being on the part of Nick. Nick is being courageous when he voluntarily goes to warn Andreson, at the same time he is deeply discomforted by Andreson’s passive attitude. It is not easy for Nick to swallow that a man can wait inactively for his murderers to come and do their job. On the other hand, the conclusion of the story suggests that Nick will leave the town and digest the experience in a course of time.
Humorous Undertones: The story is relieved by a slightly comic strain in the figures of the killers. Their identical clothes render them already conspicuous:
‘In their tight overcoats and derby hats they looked like a vaudeville team.’ (p. 285)
The two play tough gangsters, but their appearance and behaviour make them look rather like grotesque caricatures.
Their actions are not that of professional killers: informing incidental witnesses about their intentions, arguing with each other in front of the witnesses etc. Al and Max are no cunning criminals. Their poking fun at George and Nick by calling them ‘bright boys’ only emphasizes the obvious fact that they themselves are not very bright. This nevertheless does not make them less dangerous.
Note: The story was filmed several times.
AuthorHemingway, Ernest. (1899 - 1961).
Full Title"The Killers".
First PublishedIn: Scribner's Magazine. New York: 1927.
Hemingway, Ernest. ‘The Killers’. 1927. The Collected Stories. Ed. James Fenton. London: Campbell, 1995.