Book Review: Hemingway’s “The Killers”

It is widely acknowledged that evil exists in the world. However, knowing about evil and experiencing evil are two very different things. This difference is something the renowned American author Ernest Hemingway (1899-1961) loves to explore in his works. In his thrilling short story “The Killers,” Hemingway delves into the theme of discovering evil by following the experience of a young man named Nick Adams. 

In this fast and pulpy tale, we watch as gangsters (the killers) raid a small diner, tie up its occupants, and wait to eliminate Ole Anderson, who is a regular patron. They wait for their target, but he never arrives. One of the employees, Nick Adams, goes to warn Ole Anderson, but upon hearing the news, Ole isn’t fazed at all. He accepts the fact that gangsters are out to kill him with a serene resignation, and decides not to notify the police. Ole doesn’t want to do anything but stay in his room. Upon Ole’s rejection, readers follow Nick as he goes back to the diner contemplating his encounter with evil and Ole’s lack of desire to fight it. We never learn Ole’s fate, we’re left to wonder, like Nick, if his efforts were fruitless.

What is the point of this story? Hemingway uses “The Killers” to explore how Nick reacts when faced with evil for the first time in his life. Christened by crime, so to speak. Like an American version of a Brother’s Grimm story. As Hemingway follows Nick throughout the narrative, readers are drawn into his dangerous situation and experience the shock of discovering evil. Hemingway shows Nick’s innocence by writing, “He had never had a towel in his mouth before,” never been mugged, never experienced anything out of the ordinary. His life has been fine, even mundane. He believed something this dramatic and unrealistic was only found in movies at that time, not real life. With this mindset, Nick doesn’t know how to react to the situation.  

Hemingway emphasizes the idea of the situation being like an old movie by having one of the gangsters crack, “You ought to go to the movies more. The movies are fine for a bright boy like you.” These men represent the evil in the world, and their comment that Nick should watch more movies is to make him face more examples of the darker side of humanity. All throughout the story, there is a sense of the unreal: too-strange-to-be-true. This strangeness is seen from the start with the arrival of gangsters. Bona-fide glove-wearing, shotgun-toting gangsters! Such is their role: like a father figure throwing his son into a lake to make him learn to swim, so the gangsters serve to open Nick’s eyes to the evil existing in humanity. Their encouragement for Nick to watch pulpy movies widens those newly opened eyes all the more.

When Nick returns to the diner, he talks with his coworker, George, and has a new perspective on life from the experience. One where he’s now aware of the evil in this world; the impact is felt in this scene:

"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."

At the end of the story, Hemingway considers how two young men could experience the same mugging and have come to different terms with it. George doesn’t want to dwell on it. He’s used to the messier side of life. On the other hand, Nick is deeply troubled by the events. He can’t stand the idea of someone sitting and allowing death to meet him. To deal with his experience, Nick decides he needs to leave town and find a new place to process this newfound evil. His choice to leave seems like an effort to get back to a time and place far from evil: a place of innocence. With Nick’s decision, Hemingway relates to his audience because Nick’s longing for more innocent and simpilar times is a feeling many people have. It’s this universal theme that makes “The Killers” a great story.