Story has it that Ernest Hemingway wrote "The Killers" one morning in Madrid. One of his stories had just been rejected, and "The Killers" was a second, almost non-commital, attempt. This was back in the spring of 1927.
More than eighty years on, "The Killers" has lost none of its impact or appeal. It is said to be the most anthologized of Hemingway's short fiction. No wonder. It is a mesmerizing piece. It builds up tension masterfully. And yet it is told simply in the spare, telegraphic style that is trademark Hemingway.
"The Killers" follows the events in a small town diner as the eponymous killers, Max and Al, take over the place to set an ambush for their victim, Ole Anderson. Caught in between are George, the proprietor; Sam, the cook; and Nick, a customer.
The hit doesn't actually take place. Max and Al eventually tire of waiting for Ole. Mercifully, they leave without harming their hostages. Nick tries to do the right thing and warns Ole of the killers. To his surprise and disappointment, Ole refuses to do anything. Instead, Ole opts to wait for the men to come to him.
No gun is fired, no punch is thrown, in fact, no one lays a hand on anyone. One of the killers does ready a shotgun in the kitchen but it is not actively used to threaten any George, Sam, and Nick. Nevertheless, despite the total absence of fireworks, "The Killers" can be considered as a consummate study in violence.
The violence in "The Killers" is always implied, never overt, and yet the meaning and the intent could not be any clearer. It's carried out purely in the dialogue of veiled threats -- full of arrogant confidence -- of Max and Al. George, Sam, and Nick have no choice but to comply. They are swept along helplessly in that current, and so are we, the readers.
It all starts out innocently and comically. Max and Al enter the diner, wondering out loud to each other what they should order. Neither is sure what he wants, and each is egging the other to place an order. The exchange has been likened to a vaudevillean routine, of which Hemingway was said to be a fan.
“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.”
But the befuddled banter between the two men merely serves as stark contrast to the nature of their work, as we are about to see a few pages down. These two are about to kill a man, and yet they can still carry on a deadpan dialogue with each other. The conversation establishes these two as cold-blooded professional killers.
What follows is an examination, a probing of the defenses. Max and Al go out of their way to be disagreeable to George. They order something that won't be ready until six o'clock. When George tells them so, they quickly pin the fault on him.
“I’ll have a roast pork tenderloin with apple sauce and mashed potatoes,” the first man said.
“It isn’t ready yet.”
“What the hell do you put it on the card for?”
It continues: George tells them its still five o'clock. They argue that it's twenty past five. Regardless, the dinner orders wouldn't be served anyway George informs them that they can order any sort of sandwich. Deliberately they order another item that clearly isn't a sandwich. When George tells them so, they make it out that George is going out of his way to be difficult.
“Everything we want’s the dinner, eh? That’s the way you work it.”
All this serves to determine what kind of fight George will put up when they put their plan to action. Max and Al are probing George's defenses, looking at the weak points, trying to see what amount of pressure it will take for George to cave in. At this point, reader is already uncomfortable with the tension. This discomfort would be reflected on George, even though Hemingway makes no mention of George's reaction.
The next step is escalation. Max and Al up the ante. They imply the town is dumb and uninteresting, and the people there backward hicks with nothing to do.
“What do they do here nights?” Al asked.
“They eat the dinner,” his friend said. “They all come here and eat the big dinner.”
George is conciliatory and relents easily enough to the indignities. But the men are implacable. George's attempts to be agreeable are now met with overt insults. Anything George says is immediately met with contradiction.
“That’s right,” George said.
“So you think that’s right?” Al asked George.
“You’re a pretty bright boy, aren’t you?”
“Sure,” said George.
“Well, you’re not,” said the other little man. “Is he, Al?”
From this point, Max and Al keep on calling George and Nick "bright boy." To call a grown man "boy" to his face is a terrible indignity to inflict. Moreover, they employ negation by repetition: by saying "bright" over and over again, they sarcastically mean that George is the opposite (shades of Marc Antony saying "Brutus is an honorable man.")
Readers can probably instinctively feel that George and Nick must be seething inside. Yet they do nothing. They can do nothing. They already have a feel for what Max and Al are all about. The fact that they do nothing conveys to the reader the sinister nature of the deadly duo.
The escalation continues. Max and Al take offense at every little thing: a look, a laugh, a joke, all this is turned against George and Nick.
Finally, it leads to the confrontation. Having worn down the opposition's defenses, Max and Al take control of the diner occupants. There are still some hints of resistance, but the killers quash them quickly with a snarl.
“Hey, bright boy,” Max said to Nick. “You go around on the other side of the counter with your boy friend.”
“What’s the idea?” Nick asked.
“There isn’t any idea.”
“You better go around, bright boy,” Al said. Nick went around behind the counter.
“What’s the idea?” George asked.
“None of your damned business,” Al said.
What's amazing is that at this point, neither Max nor Al have pulled out their shotguns to threaten the other occupants! The shotgun comes much later in the story, and by then, it's nothing but a prop for believability. Max and Al have so thoroughly battered George, Nick, and Sam into submission with their words and their attitude that the latter have no choice but to comply. If Max and Al had gone out the back and shot all three, the readers would not at all be surprised. What follows is two hours of terror for the diner's denizens.
This pattern of examination, escalation, and confrontation in violence is somehow something that we the readers are instinctively familiar with as human beings. Hemingway manages to tap into this primal fears and uses it effectively in his story. By relying on our instinctive reactions, Hemingway renders any explicit characterization superfluous.
When Max and Al finally have their way at the diner, there's a slight de-escalation. The violence is no longer directed at George, Sam, and Nick. The killers make themselves comfortable, even engaging George in conversation. They even joke with each other. The edge is still there, though, as they openly discuss their plans to kill Ole Anderson. There are just the occasional reminders of what they are capable of.
“What you going to do with us afterward?”
“That’ll depend,” Max said. “That’s one of those things you never know at the time.”
“That was nice, bright boy,” Max said. “You’re a regular little gentleman.”
“He knew I’d blow his head off,” Al said from the kitchen.
Just before they leave, they give out a parting shot. They remind the diner trio just how close to death they've come.
“So long, bright boy,” he said to George. “You got a lot of luck.”
“That’s the truth,” Max said. “You ought to play the races, bright boy.”
After Max and Al leave the diner, the story enters another phase. The focus now shifts to George, Nick, and Sam. They pick up after themselves and consider what to do. This now serves to scrutinize the reactions of people who are subjected to violence.
Throughout their ordeal, George has acquitted himself admirably. He's kept a cool head in the presence of Max and Al. He's managed to fend off customers without arousing any suspicion. Now he suggests to Nick that the young man go off to warn Ole Anderson. But this suggestion is careless and non-commital. “Don’t go if you don’t want to,” he tells Nick.
The logical course of action would be to call the police. George, who's taken charge of the situation, doesn't do this. In fact, we see him only mildly concerned. Under other circumstances, we might have seen him spring to action, but no: he's simply deflated. Here is a man jaded by violence, not as participant but as victim. He knows that all his attempts to rectify the situation will be useless. He did what he did simply out of self-preservation, not heroism.
Sam the cook's reaction mirrors George's, though he is more frantic. "Don't get involved," he says, "stay out of it." Sam is practically running in the opposite direction. Certainly no heroics from him, either. Worse, he doesn't even want to hear any more of it when Nick returns to give his report. Cowardly as this may seem, this is still a healthy response, especially seen in the light of Ole Anderson's decision later on.
Of the three, it is Nick who finds himself at the crossroads. Nick Adams is known to be the author surrogate in Hemingway's stories. In the context of the Nick Adams canon, this is his first exposure as a mature adult into the world.
There's still a streak of idealism in Nick. His first response, after the bonds have been cut loose, is typical amusing yet inutile juvenile bluster.
“Say,” he said. “What the hell?” He was trying to swagger it off.
In that one line, Hemingway shows Nick attempting to recover his manhood, or rather, his own poor conception of it.
Nick does take action, and bravely so. But he suffers disappointment as Ole Anderson, the man he is trying to save, rebuffs him. Nick heads back to the diner to report on the development to George. They commisserate, and ultimately decide that there is nothing they can do.
If the tale ran according to typical boyhood fantasies, Ole would attempt an escape, and Nick would be the hero. Ole's dejected reaction is unlike anything that he's expected. This is Nick's baptism of fire into real adulthood. His own response at the end mirrors a bit of both George and Sam. He decides that he can't do anything about it, shrugs it off, and leaves town to distance himself from the violence. He doesn't run off, but he leaves, nonetheless.
And finally, there's Ole Anderson himself. He's warned of his impending doom, he's grateful enough for the concern, but ultimately, it's all useless. He knows they're coming for him, that it's useless to run. If they don't get him in Summit, then certainly they'll get him in the next town. He's tired of running, and he just wants to get it over with.
At first glance, this is so contrary to his character. Ole Anderson is a boxer. He ought to know how to put up a fight. But again, Hemingway confronts us with an alternate conception, perhaps one in closer cadence with reality. Ole is a fighter, and he knows when he's beaten, when there's no more point in putting up a struggle. He will just lay down calmly and die.
And that he does. Throughout his conversation with Nick, Ole is lying in bed, not even bothering to get up. Nick, in a manner of speaking, has become his tormentor, reminding him what the dictates of self-preservation demand that he do. Instead, he turns his back on Nick, facing the wall.
This portrayal of Ole Anderson reminds us of a bull in a bullfighting ring that has decided to stop fighting. There's no more thought of heroics, there's no more thought of survival, there's not even a thought of dignity. The bull is tired, and lies down, waiting for the final blow.
It's helpful to note that Hemingway's working title for "The Killers" was "The Matadors." Though they carry the same meaning, the metaphor of matadors and bulls is so fitting in the framework of the story.
Max and Al, in a manner of speaking, act like matadors. Swift, deadly, and confident to the point of arrogance, they goad their victims, provoking them to some form of reaction. In reality, it's a probe of the defenses, akin to the colorful darts that matadors throw on the bulls to anger it. Once they know to what extent the victims will act, they escalate to the point where the victims will offer no resistance.
In a manner of speaking, too, George, Sam, and Nick, as with Ole, are the bulls. Ole is the final metaphor, the picture by which we see the ultimate end of a man confronted by inescapable violence. In George, Sam, and Nick, we see the varying reactions to violence: Sam runs. George, probably closest to Ole, is resigned to defeat but carries on the motions. Nick, they young bull, learns his first lesson in the workings of the adult world.