Matt and Ruth Fowler are eminently decent people, Matt being a respected local physician and Ruth a music teacher. They could be considered pillars of their community, with three grown children, the youngest of whom, Frank, they have recently buried following his murder. Andre Dubus titled his short story “Killings” because he intends to emphasize that the Fowlers are not killers, even after they do in fact carry out the murder of the man who killed their son. Frank’s older brother, Steve, states at the end of Frank’s funeral, in reference to Richard Strout, the murderer who walks free because he’s out on bail, that “I should kill him.” It is the first in a long series of references to killing, in both the literal and metaphorical sense. As Matt talks to his friend Willis, he mentions how their son’s murder and the repeated sight of Strout walking free is affecting Ruth’s emotional state: “She can’t even go out for cigarettes and aspirin. It’s killing her.” And, of course, as the story progresses, it becomes apparent that Matt and Willis are planning to kill Strout. Finally, and most poignantly, Matt and Ruth’s relationship is dying because of the strain of having lost a child to a violent murderer.
Dubus titled his story “Killings” instead of “Killers” because he understands the humanity in each of the characters, even Richard Strout, an entirely unsympathetic character. It is the Fowlers, however, who kill without being “killers.” The focus for the author is on the act, not on the individual. Matt and Willis planned and carried out the killing of Richard Strout. Ruth was not involved, but it is clear that she knew what was happening. When Matt returns home after the deed is complete, she asks of him, “Did you do it?” A killing has occurred, but these people are not killers. As they turn in for the night, they hold each other, but cannot make love: “ . . . holding Ruth, his cheek touching her breast, he shuddered with a sob that he kept silent in his heart.”