Style and Technique

(Comprehensive Guide to Short Stories, Critical Edition)

“Killings,” one of Dubus’s best-known and most respected stories, was the basis for the film In the Bedroom (2001). Although the story revolves around passion and violence, Dubus tells the tale in a flat, calm way. The first two acts of violence are dropped into the story unexpectedly and without emotion. The story opens with Frank’s funeral, then moves on to the conversation between Willis and Matt about how Matt wishes he could kill the man who murdered his son, but the reader does not know who killed Frank, how, or why. Next, in a long descriptive paragraph, Richard is introduced. He is first connected to Frank by the flat opening line of the next paragraph: “One night he beat Frank.” Only then does the reader learn about Mary Ann, and Matt’s and Ruth’s differing feelings about her.

In a lovely, lyrical scene, Mary Ann joins the Fowlers for a barbeque after a day at the beach. Matt’s love for his son is mixed with a wistful attraction to Mary Ann. She is beautiful, but Matt sees in her eyes a sadness and pain that he and his family have been spared, and he wishes he could help and comfort her. The next paragraph starts with, “Richard Strout shot Frank in front of the children.” Such jarring shifts of mood are used to emphasize how quickly life can turn from sunny to violent and how swiftly the good things in life can be taken away.

The story’s point of view is that of the limited omniscient narrator. The reader sees the events through Matt’s eyes only, so Ruth’s and Willis’s roles in the tragedy are only implied. There is little dialogue; instead, Dubus paints vivid descriptions of the small details of life: the sights that the men pass on their way to Richard’s home and to the place of his execution, the way Richard’s socks and underwear are folded in the drawer when Matt makes him pack his suitcase, and Matt’s memory of his children climbing trees.


"Killings" is set along the dotted landscape of small towns outside of Boston, Massachusetts. Tourism, beaches, Fenway Park, and the woods are tangential to the main storyline and contribute to the tone of the story.

The small town is blue-collar. The children in the story represent steps of advancement in the American dream and upward mobility. Matt Fowler owns a store where he works six days a week, which reflects his hard work and position. His twenty-eight-year-old son Steve works at a branch office of a bank, which suggests some upward mobility. Frank is attending graduate school in economics, but he lives at home and works as a lifeguard. He is saving money to afford his education. Cathleen lives in Syracuse, New York.

The urban environment near Boston plays an integral role in Matt's sense of nostalgia and the values of parenthood. Matt recalls a conversation with Frank on a long night drive to Fenway Park. Matt had ordered tickets and knew they would have time to talk in the car. This conversation is something that Frank had expected from his father; he knew he had questions and concerns about Mary Ann. Matt and Frank talked in the city traffic winding along the Charles River. Dubus writes that the time of day was “blue in the late sun.” This setting was clearly one of Matt’s last beautiful and intimate memories with Frank.

Beachfronts also delineate the blue-collar locals from visiting tourists in the story. Mary Ann meets Frank at the beach. Tourists also come into the area during the summer and fill up the town, and abandon it the rest of the year. Readers get a sense of the seasons as Richard and Matt drive together and Matt notices the Dairy Queen closed until spring and the two lobster restaurants that were crowded all summer and are now closed. Matt is reminiscing in a sense as he rides to commit this murder. He is reviewing the places that are so familiar and comforting to him. Matt sees the short bridge crossing the tidal stream and the moonlit current in the dark. As they leave the bridge, Matt notes the salt marsh on both sides and the tall grass of the marshy east coast.

Matt and Willis also represent being on the road and a break with their small town home. New Hampshire is "the...

(The entire section is 918 words.)