The Killers Questions and Answers

Ernest Hemingway

Read real teacher answers to our most interesting The Killers questions.

Why didn't Ole Andreson show up for dinner on the night the killers were waiting for him?

"I guess I left as much out of 'The Killers' as any story I ever wrote. Left out the whole city of Chicago."
A. E. Hotchner, Papa Hemingway

Because Ernest Hemingway left so much information out of "The Killers," the story leaves many questions in the intelligent reader's mind. It is possible to deduce answers from information provided. Ole is a big man. He has been on the lam for some time and must be working for a living. Since he is not well educated, he must do manual labor. We can assume he has little money because of where he lives and where he eats.

The reader observes most of the action from inside the diner. Business is very slow. If Max and Al had not showed up, the only customers would have been Nick Adams, a street-car motorman whom George turned away in obedience to orders, a man who ordered a ham-and-egg sandwich "to go," and the other man who was turned away and asked angrily, "Why the hell don't you get another cook?" Nick is probably only drinking a cup of coffee on the house. Max and Al do not pay. The only money George collects in about two hours is for the sandwich "to go," which in those days would cost about twenty-five cents.

The streets outside seem deserted. It must be a Sunday night. Ole comes for dinner every night at six o'clock "when he comes," but he does not come that night because he is not hungry. He works hard all week and arrives as soon as the dinner is available at six o'clock. This would include on Saturday evenings because men commonly worked six days a week. Max and Al seem sure Ole comes every night at six, but George says he only comes at six if he comes at all. George may not have noticed that the nights when Ole does not come are usually Sunday nights. The big Swede is not hungry because he has been doing nothing but lying on his bed, the way Nick finds him when he comes to warn him—further proof it is Sunday.

This explains why Ole did not arrive. Many other questions may be answered through logical deduction, and it seems likely that Hemingway expected intelligent readers to seek those answers, rather than supinely assuming the answers are unimportant because the author did not provide them. For example: Why did the killers believe Ole came every night at six? Somebody must have told them. Undoubtedly it was the "friend" they were doing a favor for by murdering Ole—and probably murdering George, Nick, and Sam to eliminate witnesses. But then what made this "friend" believe that Ole came to the diner every night at six, when the plain fact was that he did come at six but not every night? Somebody must have given erroneous information to the "friend." But who? It must have been somebody in Summit. But who? The answer may be found in the fourth or fifth dimension:

The kind of writing that can be done. How far prose can be carried if any one is serious enough and has luck. There is a fourth and fifth dimension that can be gotten.
Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa

 

Who fingered Ole Andreson?

The kind of writing that can be done. How far prose can be carried if any one is serious enough and has luck. There is a fourth and fifth dimension that can be gotten.

Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa

The two hit-men assume that Ole Andreson will arrive at Henry's Lunch Room at six o'clock:

"I'll tell you," Max said. "We're going to kill a Swede. Do you know a big Swede named Ole Andreson?"
"Yes."
"He comes here to eat every night, don't he?"
"Sometimes he comes here."
"He comes at six o'clock, don't he?"
"If he comes."
"We know all that, bright boy," Max said. "Talk about something else."

Obviously these killers have gotten their information from the "friend" who sent them. But where did the friend get the information? And why was it only partially correct? He must have gotten it through someone living in Summit, and that informant must have assumed incorrectly that Ole ate at Henry's every night when he only ate there almost every night. Chances are that the friend did not come to Summit in person but heard through the grapevine that Ole Andreson was living in the town of Summit. So he sent someone to check it out. That man returned with the information that Ole was definitely living there and ate at Henry's Lunch Room every night at six.

After George unties Nick and Sam, Nick goes to Hirsch's rooming house, where he gets involved with the inquisitive Mrs. Bell. This needy, gossiping, lonely woman waits for Nick by the front entrance and then starts talking about Ole:

"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. . . . You'd never know it except from the way his face is. . . . He's just as gentle."

Mrs. Bell takes great interest in Ole. Even though he has stayed in his room all day, she has found some excuse to get inside to ask about his health and advise him to take a walk. Her words, "He's just as gentle," betray that she is in love with this big, gentle, and unattached man. She knows more about his comings and goings than anybody else in Summit, and she is more than willing to talk about him with any stranger. Hemingway establishes that Nick and Mrs. Bell are strangers by having him mistake her for Mrs. Hirsch.

The most likely scenario is this. The friend sent an agent to verify the information about Ole. The agent easily learned that Ole lived at Mrs. Hirsch's rooming house. Mrs. Bell answered the door. The friendly caller inquired about rooms and rents, then asked if there were any boxing matches held in Summit, or some such leading question. This would immediately prompt the bell-shaped, middle-aged woman to bring up her favorite topic, the ex-boxer living right under her own roof. During the conversation the agent would have been told that Ole ate dinner at Henry's Lunch Room every night at six o'clock. Mrs. Bell might have asked the caller if he would like to meet Mr. Andreson, and the caller would have said something like: "Oh, no! I wouldn't want to bother him. Maybe I'll run into him at Henry's."

This would explain the rather strange initial meeting between Nick and Mrs. Bell:

"Is Ole Andreson here?"
"Do you want to see him?"
"Yes, if he's in."
Nick followed the woman up a flight of stairs and back to the end of a corridor. She knocked on the door.
"Who is it?"
"It's somebody to see you, Mr. Andreson," the woman said.
"It's Nick Adams."
"Come in."

Here is a landlady in a cheap small-town rooming house personally escorting a visitor up a flight of stairs and down to the end of a corridor to announce him when she does not even know his name. She would certainly not do that for anyone but Ole. She takes any opportunity to talk to him. Notice the exasperation in Nick's voice when he says, "Yes, if he's in." Why would he be asking for him if he did not want to see him? But she has gotten the impression from the "friend's" agent that some people ask about Ole when they do not want to see him.

After talking to Mrs. Bell that afternoon, the agent would have stopped by Henry's Lunch Room at six o'clock and would have seen a big Swede with a marked-up face eating the special dinner at the counter at exactly six o'clock; and he would have carried that information back to Chicago.

But why did Mrs. Bell think Ole ate dinner at Henry's every night at six, when he obviously only eats there at six when he eats there—which is clearly established by the vital fact that he does not show up on the night the killers are waiting? There is an obvious answer. Mrs. Bell is badgering Ole, but he is too nice a man to hurt her feelings. She is always concerned about his health and frequently offers to bring him a bowl of her homemade chicken soup and a slice of her homemade apple pie—or whatever. She must know he is in the habit of taking long walks on days off, which is why she suggested he take a long walk today. If he goes for a walk on a Sunday, he is sure to run into her in the foyer when he returns, and she is sure to ask him if he had anything to eat. He always tells her he ate at Henry's because he does not want her bringing him her chicken soup and apple pie. He does not want to get involved with her, but she certainly wants to get involved with him. So this is how she got the idea that he eats at Henry's every night at six when he probably does eat there every night at six—except on Sundays when he has not been working hard enough to build up an appetite. He only tells her he ate at Henry's on Sundays.

So it was Mrs. Bell, the lonely widow who is in love with Ole Andreson, who is responsible for bringing the killers to Summit that Sunday night. She knows, or thinks she knows, all about his habits. She talks about him at church, when she goes shopping, when she visits friends, and whenever else she can. It was Mrs. Bell who spread the word which finally got back to Chicago and caused the friend to send his agent to Summit. And then it was Mrs. Bell who inadvertently told the agent where and when the killers would have the best opportunity to kill the big Swede.

Hemingway never wasted words or even punctuation marks. There are many clues in "The Killers" that can enable an intelligent reader to see a "fourth and fifth dimension" to the story. The fourth dimension has to do with time. The perceptive and thoughtful reader can see how invisible but tangible things that happened in the past are shaping the events dramatized in the present. The fifth dimension probably adds depth to the fourth dimension, making unrecorded events more cogent—but Hemingway never explained that aspect of his legendary "Iceberg Theory."

Why is Sam cooking such big meals when there are no customers?

When Max orders roast pork tenderloin with apple sauce and mashed potatoes, George tells him: "It isn't ready yet." Then Max orders chicken croquettes with green peas and cream sauce and mashed potatoes. George tells him: "That's the dinner." Evidently Sam is doing a lot of cooking back in the kitchen. Yet there are no customers except for Max and Al. Sam must be doing the cooking now just because there are no customers. The place is described as a "lunch room." Tomorrow Sam will be too busy preparing short orders and will have no time for such heavy cooking. He is obviously getting the food ready for tomorrow night's dinner. A few dinners may be served on the night of the killers' visit, but most of the pork tenderloin and chicken croquettes will be eaten on Monday. All Sam will have to do is warm it all up. It takes a lot of time to prepare the food for cooking and then time to cook. That is why he is getting it done tonight.

Obviously, this is a Sunday night. That explains why there are few customers. It also explains why Ole has been lying on his bed all day. He is a big man who must be a manual laborer. He does not show up at Henry's Lunch Room at six because he does not work on Sundays and does not acquire an appetite. The killers may have decided to ambush him on a Sunday night because they thought the little diner would be less crowded. They were right about that but wrong in believing Ole would be there at six o'clock any night of the week.

By inference we can assume Henry's is a popular place during the week. It will probably be packed for lunch on Monday afternoon and packed for dinner. Sam has to get his heavy cooking out of the way before he gets too busy. These dinners, featured with little inserts on the menu each day, used to be commonly called "Blue Plate Specials," and restaurants like Henry's were commonly called "one-arm joints," because everybody ate at the counter and leaned on one arm while shoveling in food with the other. Most such diners have been replaced by franchise fast-food operations like McDonald's, Burger King, Jack in the Box, Carl's Jr., and Wendy's.

Hemingway is being intentionally ironic when—less than an hour before they expect to kill Ole Andreson with a sawed-off shotgun and then kill George, Nick, and Sam with the same weapon—he has one of the insensitive killers order roast pork tenderloin with apple sauce and mashed potatoes and then chicken croquettes with cream sauce and mashed potatoes. The fact that they did plan to kill the three witnesses is proved by what the killers say after they give up waiting and are on their way out:

"So long, bright boy," he said to George. "You got a lot of luck."
"That's the truth," said Max. "You ought to play the races, bright boy."

Are Max and Al drunk?

Max and Al do a lot of talking for men supposed to be stone-cold killers. They come from the bootleg capital of America and must have been drinking out of a bottle all the way from Chicago. Hemingway does not say they are drunk, but he needed both talking to convey exposition through dialogue. The author drops many hints both are drunk. Consider the following, for example:

"Got anything to drink?" Al asked.
"Silver beer, bevo, ginger-ale," George said.
"I mean you go anything to drink."
"Just those I said."
"This is a hot town," said the other. "What do they call it?"
"Summit."
"Ever hear of it?" Al asked his friend.
"No," said the friend.

Their uncouth, hostile, volatile exhibitionism suggests a couple of drunks who have emptied their own bottle. They pretend not to know the name of the town in order to get George to name it for the benefit of the reader, which is similar to the following:

Al asks Nick, "What's your name?"
"Adams."

Then moments later, the following is asked:

"What's the bright boy's name down the counter?" Al asked Max.

Nick just told Al his name. Al also sounds like a drunk when they first sit down and Max asks the following:

"What do you want to eat, Al?"
"I don't know," said Al. "I don't know what I want to eat."

We have all seen drunks who act that way in public places. Most of their dialogue is unnecessary banter but it is essential to conveying information without straight prose exposition. Consider the following, for example:

"Who's out in the kitchen?"
"The nigger."
"What do you mean the nigger?"
"The nigger that cooks."

George obeys their order. "Sam," he called. "Come in here a minute."

Now we know everyone by name. We know the cook's name is Sam and that he is black. We even learn that one killer is a Catholic and the other a Jew:

"You talk too damn much," Al said. "The nigger and my bright boy are amused by themselves. I got them tied up like a couple of girl friends in the convent."
"I suppose you were in a convent."
"You never know."
"You were in a kosher convent. That's where you were."

Max talks too much because he is drunk. Al warns him several times. Both talk too much. Max resents Al's innuendo about girls in convents. He must be a Catholic. Al must be Jewish. This is rather unusual. It suggests that the man who hired these killers got them from two different mobs, probably even from two different cities, and that they scarcely know each other, which is the way the "friend" wanted it for his own protection.

Max and Al have to keep talking in order to convey information which would be given in straight prose exposition in traditional fiction. And these professional killers would not be talking so much if they had not consumed a whole quart of bootleg whiskey on their drive from Chicago. Nick and Sam do virtually no talking throughout their ordeal. George talks as little as possible because he is scared and intimidated. It is up to Max and Al to fill up pages with their stupidities. When they finally get around to telling George why they are here it is because they are going to need him to identify Ole. They cannot just shoot any big man who arrives around six o'clock and looks as if he might be Swedish. They are just drunk enough to do a lot of unprofessional talking but just sober enough to handle their assignment.

What does not happen in Hemingway's story is as important as what does. One thing that would have happened is that George would have put the finger on Ole in hopes of saving his own life. George shows he is willing to cooperate when he asks, "what you going to do with us afterward?" He has already consigned Ole to his fate. Notice the tightness in George's throat implied by leaving out the word "are." 

The killers fully intend to eliminate all three witnesses, as shown by the following:

"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."

It would be easy enough for Al to kill all three witnesses. He has a double-barreled sawed-off shotgun. One shot would kill Ole. The other would kill George. Nick and Sam are tied up and can be killed after Al reloads.

Max and Al may not be as tough as they act. They may need liquor to bolster their nerve for what they have to do.

What comes from the fourth dimension in "The Killers"?

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 was not 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 does not 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 did not go to Henry’s because he had not 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 cannot 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 cannot 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 cannot 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."

What is the setting of this story?

The kind of writing that can be done. How far prose can be carried if any one is serious enough and has luck. There is a fourth and fifth dimension that can be gotten.

Ernest Hemingway, Green Hills of Africa

"The Killers" depicts a little incident occurring in a small town in Middle America, but it is set against an implicit backdrop depicting America as it was changing during, and because of, Prohibition. Even the setting in the little diner is different because of Prohibition. Henry's had formerly been a saloon, but the owner had been forced to change it to a lunch room. Instead of being crowded with noisy, laughing men drinking beer and straight shots of whiskey, it is virtually deserted. It is an appropriate symbol of a changing nation. The two killers are obviously from Chicago, the bootleg capital of America. Gangsters have become enormously powerful, and even regarded as heroes, because of their profits from bootleg liquor. They have an arrogant attitude which is memorialized in old movies by actors like James Cagney, Humphrey Bogart, George Raft, and Edward G. Robinson. The two killers regard themselves as something like movie stars. One of them keeps looking at himself in the mirror behind the bar. Many Americans resented government interference in their personal lives, and Prohibition sparked a minor revolution. The gangsters used their riches to corrupt the police, the courts, and the legislatures. Evidently Ole Andreson had been corrupted himself, although Hemingway does not specify exactly what he did to "get in wrong." Ole's role in the story seems to be principally to illustrate the extent of the criminals' power. There is no escape. All of America is becoming corrupted. When Nick Adams says that he is getting out of Summit, he may be speaking for Hemingway, who got out of America altogether and spent many years in Europe, where he did much of his best writing. It is well known that Hemingway liked to drink. But he probably did not like the idea of enriching and aggrandizing ignorant troglodytes by doing so. Max and Al are not just a couple of hoods, but symbols of the unanticipated but inevitable results of Prohibition.