The kind of writing that can be done. How far prose can be carried if anyone is serious enough and has luck. There is a fourth and fifth dimension that can be gotten. --Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa
If a writer of prose knows enough of what he is writing about he may omit things that he knows and the reader, if the writer is writing truly enough, will have a feeling of those things as strongly as though the writer had stated them. The dignity of movement of an ice-berg is due to only one-eighth of it being above water. A writer who omits things because he does not know them only makes hollow places in his writing. --Ernest Hemingway, Death in the Afternoon
The first three dimensions are height, width, and depth. These are found in any story or novel. The fourth dimension must have something to do with time. And perhaps if we could understand the fourth dimension we could understand the fifth. But the fourth is a sufficient challenge. In stories like “The Killers,” Hemingway seems to be “omitting” quite a few “things.” For example, he does not explain why someone wants Ole Andreson dead. Presumably the writer has omitted “things that he knows.” According to Hemingway the intelligent reader will “have a feeling of those things as though the writer had stated them.” So what unstated things do we have feelings about in “The Killers”? I believe these “things” constitute the fourth dimension Hemingway was talking about in Death in the Afternoon.
Ole Andreson was a boxer who did something to infuriate a powerful mobster. There wasn’t much Ole could have done except lose a fight he should have won or win a fight he had been told to lose. It seems likely he accepted money to go into the tank and caused another mobster to lose a lot paying off bets. The mobster who lost, whom we will call “the Friend,” as one of the two hired killers describes him, spread the word he would like to know Ole’s whereabouts. Ole understandably kept on the move until he arrived in Summit, where he hoped to remain invisible until the heat wore off. But word got back to Chicago that Ole was living in that town and the Friend sent an agent, or possibly his consigliere, to check.
The Agent could ask a few questions at the barber shop or even on the main street and quickly learn Ole was staying at Mrs. Hirsch’s rooming house. He would go when Ole would be at work. Ole is a big, strong man with no education. He must do some kind of manual labor, possibly even pick-and-shovel work. Whom should the Agent meet when he rang the bell but the empty-headed, bell-shaped, nosy, gabby Mrs. Bell.
Here is a scene that comes to life out of the fourth dimension. The Agent asks about vacancies. She shows him a couple of rooms and then the bathroom and community kitchen and finally explains the house rules. He asks if there are ever any boxing matches in town. He is quite a boxing fan. This prompts her to tell everything she knows about the roomer named Ole Andreson who was “in the ring.”
The Agent doesn’t show too much interest. She might tell the big Swede someone was asking about him. But the Agent learns Ole eats dinner every night at six o’clock at Henry’s Lunch Room. It must have been this lonely widow who was responsible for that faulty information getting back to Chicago--and passed on to Max and Al. They decided to ambush Ole on a Sunday night because business would be slow at such a one-arm joint that night of the week. But Ole didn’t go to Henry’s because he hadn’t worked up an appetite.
Mrs. Bell is in love with Ole. In the fourth dimension we can see her making an effort to develop a relationship. She inquires about his health. She offers to bring him plates of things she has cooked with her own little hands. But Ole is not interested in this needy woman--and anyway he is trying to keep a low profile. He has had to move many times because his nemesis discovered where he was holed up. Many people would like to be friends of the Friend in Chicago. Ole tells Nick: “I’m through with all that running around.” He is an exhausted animal brought to bay. Whenever Mrs. Bell asks him if he would like some of her soup or meatloaf or pecan pie, he tells her he just ate at Henry’s. This is why this not overly bright landlady is the only person who believes Ole eats at Henry’s every night at six o’clock when he only eats there most nights after work because six is when the special dinner is served.
The Agent meets Mrs. Bell on a weekday. He stops by Henry’s and sees that, sure enough, Ole Andreson arrives at six o’clock and sits at the counter. The Agent takes this information back to the Friend, who recruits a couple of professional killers to make the visit we read about.
The door of Henry’s Lunch-Room opened and two men came in.
They come from the fourth dimension.
Max and Al have been sharing a quart of booze on the drive. This is why they are so boisterous when they barge in. Hemingway needed them drunk. They have to convey a lot of exposition in dialogue. Even so, the exposition is mainly inferable from their banter. When Max tells George, “We’re killing him for a friend. Just to oblige a friend, bright boy,” Al says, “Shut up. You talk too goddam much.” The other characters—George, Nick, and Sam—say little. Nick and Sam are bound and gagged. George just wants to stay alive.
The fifth dimension would have to be a dimension of the fourth dimension which would make the events in that dimension palpable. The fifth dimension might actually give height and width to the fourth dimension, if not depth. In other words, the reader’s conception of the things omitted would be so strong they would seem to have been included in the narrative. Hemingway’s ice-berg technique creates immediacy. The reader is held in the present from minute to minute; he can’t remember what he has been told and what he has merely surmised.
“The Killers” is an intentionally ambiguous title. Hemingway is suggesting Ole had multiple killers, including especially Mrs. Bell, who is so in love with the big, gentle Swede that she can’t stop pestering him or stop talking about him. Even though he has been in his room all day, she has somehow managed to get inside--no doubt to ask if he would like her to bring something to eat.
“He’s been in his room all day,” the landlady said down-stairs. “I guess he don’t feel well. I said to him: ‘Mr. Andreson, you ought to go out and take a walk on a nice fall day like this,’ but he didn’t feel like it.”
“I’m sorry he don’t feel well,” the woman said. “He’s an awfully nice man. He was in the ring, you know.”
“I know it.”
“You’d never know it except from the way his face is,” the woman said. They stood talking inside the street door. “He’s just as gentle.”
George is one of the killers too, because he has tacitly agreed to identify Ole if and when he arrives. When George asks, “What you going to do with us afterward?” he shows he has already written Ole off. Max and Al have never seen the Swede. Al can’t just blast any diner who is big and might be Swedish. Nick and Sam are also cooperating, hoping to stay alive. Nick goes to warn Ole because he is ashamed of himself for being so easily subdued. Sam said nothing but, “Yes, sir.”
Ernest Hemingway was a great admirer of Stephen Crane. At the end of Crane’s well-known story “The Blue Hotel” the Easterner makes the following statement to the cowboy:
“Every sin is the result of a collaboration. We, five of us, have collaborated in the murder of this Swede. Usually there are from a dozen to forty women really involved in every murder, but in this case it seems to be only five men--you, I, Johnnie, old Scully, and that fool of an unfortunate gambler came merely as a culmination, the apex of a human movement, and gets all the punishment."