The Killers by Ernest Hemingway

“The Killers” is a short story by Ernest Hemingway, first published 1927. Dorthy Parker goes on record as declaring “The Killers” the best short story of 1929. This surprises me at first, but I need reminding: “The Killers” did something brand new, something we’ve since seen in stories such as:

  • Various Quentin Tarantino movies
  • The gas station scene in No Country For Old Men
  • The Godfather
  • The Sopranos
  • In a related way, the opening sequence of Mohawk by Richard Russo

That is, Hemingway took gangsters out of what regular people consider their natural environment — or murdering, torturing, drug dealing, money laundering etc. and placed them in the down-to-earth, domestic environment of a cafe. Readers hadn’t really realised, until this point, that gangsters need to eat, too. Gangsters rub up against ordinary people on a daily basis. And what happens when they do?

This is a beautiful description of toxic forms of dick-waving masculinity, which in a few snippets of dialogue Hemingway adeptly  intersects with racism, anti-semitism and sexism. The two gangsters use these tools of violence to effectively establish their situational dominance.

And that story of dominance, of masculinity taken to its extreme, is the meat of the story. It pays to remember that, because otherwise the ending feels like an anti-climax.

Much has already been said about this short story. My focus is on the writing techniques, focusing on story structure.

STORY WORLD OF “THE KILLERS”

‘Henry’s lunchroom’, on dusk. The offerings of lunchrooms were simple and inexpensive. No alcohol was served. America was in Prohibition anyway, although these gangsters would’ve been involved in bootlegging (heavily implied in this story). Customers of lunchrooms got their food at a counter and carried it to their seats. As shown in this story, there was a masculine vibe to the lunchroom. “We’ll get it cooked for you, boys, but don’t expect us to wait on you hand and foot like some kind of woman.”

Most lunch rooms shared a basic floor plan in a standard storefront space 18 to 25 feet wide and 75 to 100 feet deep. About 2/3 to 3/4 of the space was devoted to the dining room, the rest making up the kitchen which was hidden behind a wall, partition, or just a curtain.

Restaurant-ing Through History

Henry’s not there, as Mrs Hirsch isn’t there, running her own rooming-house. These people with all the money don’t have to come face-to-face with a dangerous underclass — their money protects them entirely. Instead it’s their aproned employees left to bear the danger and protect the business. Hemingway is saying something about class.

I didn’t personally pick this up from what’s on the page (I’m not American) but the story is set in Summit, Illinois.  (I thought when the gangster said ‘Summit’ he had a weirdly accented way of saying ‘Something’, as in some British accents.

Summit

Even today, Summit has a small population of about 11k people, so in the 1920s it would’ve been a tight-knit community where everyone knows everyone. Because of its geographical position, the diner would also be well-placed to serve travellers passing through. Google maps tells me that these days it takes between 23 and 33 minutes to drive from central Chicago to Summit down the main arterial road. At the time of this story, the men in the Summit eatery consider the gangsters out-of-towners, ‘from Chicago’, a reminder that short distances took a lot longer to travel back then.

Chicago Summit

THE SYMBOLISM OF SEASONS

It’s five pm, so I deduce winter. Later, Hemingway talks about the ‘bare branches of a tree’, which confirms it. The gangsters are wearing coats.

Generally, winter equates to death. In this story, I believe there’s another function — the winter outside makes the lunchroom feel cosy… on an ordinary day. This is a kind of men’s refuge, where they come after a long working day to grab sustenance and companionship. This sense of safety is now punctured.

The same off-kilter, juxtaposed atmosphere is achieved in Edward Hopper’s famous painting, Nighthawks, painted a few decades after this story was written.

Nighthawks Edward_Hopper_1942

THE LUNCHROOM

Though the narrator calls it a lunchroom, Henry also serves dinner, though not until  6pm.

The food is standard Western fare, typical of America at the time:

  • sandwiches — ham and eggs, bacon and eggs, liver and bacon, steak
  • chicken croquettes with green peas and cream sauce and mashed potatoes
  • roast pork tenderloin with apple sauce and mashed potatoes

These details serve to familiarise the reader to the environment, and also to juxtapose against the foreignness of the gangster world, which just walked in the door.

Hirsch’s rooming-house is mentioned. This is where the Swede lives. A rooming house is a “dwelling with multiple rooms rented out individually”, in which the tenants share bathroom and kitchen facilities. Notably, it serves a low-income/unmarried population.

DETAIL

Hemingway uses other narrative tricks to help us view this eatery as ordinary and everyday:

“Listen, bright boy,” he said from the kitchen to George. “Stand a little further along the bar. You move a little to the left, Max.” He was like a photographer arranging for a group picture.

CHARACTERS IN “THE KILLERS”

Henry — owns an eatery.

George — I’m initially confused by the question ‘What’s yours,’ but deduce this is what men of this era say in place of ‘Can I take your order?’ George must be the guy who works at the eatery.

Al — The first of the two men to be named.He wore a derby hat and a black overcoat buttoned across the chest. His face was small and white and he had tight lips. He wore a silk muffler and gloves. Al is a classic American gangster name, at least since Al Capone (who lived 1899 – 1947).  When this story was published, Al was notorious as the boss of the Chicago Outfit. The reader is properly primed to expect the two men who just walked in are the aforementioned killers of the title. 

Max — Al’s companion, equally small, whose name is eventually revealed in dialogue. ‘He was about the same size as Al. Their faces were different, but they were dressed like twins. Both wore overcoats too tight for them. They sat leaning forward, their elbows on the counter.’ The tightness of their coats may be an attempt to make themselves seem bigger? A constant reminder that they are too big for something, even if that ‘something’ is just their own coats.

Nick Adams — Another young customer, who gets a towel stuffed in his mouth. He goes round to warn the Swede that gangsters are after him.

Sam — the Black cook, referred to as ‘the nigger’.

Ole Anderson — The Swede, who the gangsters say they have come to kill. We later go with Nick as Nick warns him he’s about to get an unwelcome visit. Ole is huge, juxtaposing against the smallness of the gangsters.

Streetcar motorman — Innocently comes in to get his supper, as he often does. Another few unnamed customers come and go. One man criticises George for failing to get another cook, which highlights to the reader how sometimes when things seem to not be going our way, there’s more behind the scenes than we’ll ever know.

Mrs Bell — runs Hirsch’s rooming house, with an office downstairs.

WHAT HAPPENS IN “THE KILLERS”

Two gangsters walk into an eatery, in wait for a usual customer, Ole Anderson. The gangsters establish dominance with the other men in the eatery and are up front about their plans to kill. But Anderson never shows up. The gangsters leave. Much has been written by scholars about Hemingway’s use of the word ‘vaudeville’:

In their tight overcoats and derby hats they looked like a vaudeville team.

If we go to see a vaudeville act, what we are watching is fiction. I think the guys in the cafe are watching these men from a slight distance with the feeling they just came out of a work of fiction themselves. I see it as a comment on their disbelief — a common reaction after something highly unusual happens in an otherwise usual environment.

George, the guy on the front desk, tells regular customer Nick to go warn the Swede that gangsters are after him. Sam, the Black cook, advises against it.

Nick listens to George. When he gets to Anderson’s room he finds a morose man waiting for his fate. Nick can’t persuade Anderson to get out of town or anything. Anderson is lying on his bed waiting for death.

Nick and the woman at the desk of the rooming-house agree that Anderson is a nice guy. Nick returns to the eatery and relays the situation, then concludes he’d better get out of town himself. The others agree this is wise.

STORY STRUCTURE OF “THE KILLERS”

WEAKNESS/NEED

It’s not easy picking a ‘main character’ of this particular story, because emphasis is shared among quite a large cast. (Note that Hemingway made sure to keep reminding us who they all were — a technique I really appreciated.) For instance, the cook is known sometimes as ‘Sam’ and at othertimes, racistly, offensively as ‘the nigger’, so when Hemingway mentions ‘Sam’, he makes sure to write ‘Sam, the cook’, even though we’ve already been introduced to him.

The question to ask: Who changes the most over the course of this story? Who has the self-revelation? In that case, it’s Nick. The reader also accompanies Nick as we together go and see Ole Anderson.

Nick’s weakness is that he is an ordinary guy in am unusual situation. He does what he thinks is the sensible thing, going to warn a guy about his hitmen, but as it turns out, Sam was right — being a solid member of the underclass, Sam’s intuition is better — going to warn Anderson isn’t going to help.

DESIRE

Nick just wants to eat his dinner. Opposition turns up.

Then he wants to follow the Everyman’s conscience and warn another man he’s about to be killed. The typical reader is completely on side with him in this. Which of us wouldn’t want nice guy Ole Anderson warned? These days of course we have phones. We wouldn’t have to risk our own lives turning up at his room. But even if we did have to go to his room, wouldn’t most of us do whatever we could?

OPPONENT

Opposition is clear: The gangsters.

Importantly, gangsters who don’t stop until they’ve tracked down their target are robotic in their characterisation. The robotic killer who keeps coming back and back and back has since become a stock trope of horror. Even more interestingly, the robotic character who keeps doing the same thing over and over is also a common trope of comedy. Scratch the surface, and the comedy and the thriller are very similar!

PLAN

Nick’s plan is simple: He’ll warn Ole. As it turns out, Nick’s plan is ridiculously naive. He has started with the assumption that if he warns Ole Anderson, Ole can just head out of town and avoid being killed. He doesn’t realise that these killers don’t stop until they’ve got what they want.

BATTLE

The title has already told us that this is a story about men who kill. So Hemingway did the sensible thing and kept the kill off the page. There is no inherent interest in that scene.

The interest comes from the dominance display which precedes it. That is the Battle scene.

SELF-REVELATION

Nick is bowled over to learn that Ole has just given up, resigned to his fate. The conversation with the lady downstairs reminds him (and tells us) that Ole is a good guy, just like Nick.

And by the time he’s got back to the eatery, he’s realised that if a nice guy like Ole could have a hit on him, so could Nick himself, for involving himself in this very tangentially. So his self-revelation is that this kind of thing really happens, it’s been happening under a mundane surface all this time, and now it might be his turn.

NEW EQUILIBRIUM

We extrapolate that Ole Anderson is killed and Nick moves out of Summit, at least for a while.