Two men, Al and Max, come into Henry’s lunch-room where the manager, George, is talking to Nick Adams, one of the diners. They sit down at the counter and debate about what to order. Their first choices are to be served only after 6 o’clock, and since it’s 5 o’clock, the pork tenderloin and chicken croquettes are not available. George lists the available choices and the men order ham, eggs, bacon, and eggs, respectively. They are dressed alike with tight overcoats, mufflers, and derby hats. While they eat they comment sarcastically on the liveliness of the town, Summit, and how “bright” George and Nick are.
Suddenly, Al and Max order Nick around the other side of the counter with George and inquire if anyone else is in in the diner. George tells them Sam, the cook, is in the kitchen, and he is told to call Sam out to the counter. Amid mild protests from Nick and George, Al takes Nick and Sam back into the kitchen while Max sits at the counter and George remains behind it.
When George asks Max what it’s all about, Max reveals he and Al are there to ambush and kill a Swede named Ole Andreson, a resident of Summit, when he comes in to dinner at Henry’s at 6 o’clock. It becomes known that they are hit men hired to kill Andreson in the manner, it is implied, of gangsters in the movies. Al announces he has tied Sam and Nick up in the kitchen
Max orders George to tell any customers that the cook is out and if that doesn’t put them off, to cook for them himself but to get rid of them quickly. When he goes into the kitchen to make a sandwich for a customer, he sees Al with a sawed-off shotgun sitting by the wicket and Sam and Nick tied up in the corner.
Finally, when Andreson has failed to show up by his usual hour of 6 o’clock, Al and Max prepare to leave. Al is reluctant to go, grumbling that Max has talked too much about why they’re in Summit, but eventually they leave and George unties Sam and Nick. George urges Nick to warn Andreson but Sam urges him to stay out of it.
Nick, having decided to go, walks to Hirsch’s rooming-house where Andreson lives and is let in by Mrs. Bell, the caretaker of the establishment. Andreson, a former heavyweight boxer, is lying on his bed in a depressed fashion and expresses no surprise when Nick tells him about Al, Max, and their mission. Andreson appears resigned to his fate, and negates all of Nick’s suggestions that he should go to the police, skip town, or patch up whatever matter led to the contract on him in the first place. He says he is through running and that eventually he’ll leave his room.
Nick leaves him and speaks briefly with Mrs. Bell, who says Andreson has been depressed all day and that it’s a shame because he’s a nice man. Upon returning to Henry’s, Nick reports to George that Andreson was not surprised by the news and doesn’t plan to take any action to protect himself, and they conclude that he probably double-crossed someone in Chicago; that’s the cause of the contract on him. Nick is quite depressed by the contemplation of Andreson’s fate and resolves to leave town.
“The Killers” is a story that deals with the familiar Hemingway themes of courage, disillusionment, death, and futility. Nick Adams, Hemingway’s semi-autobiographical narrator in a whole series of short stories, performs a clear act of heroism but is disappointed by the result of it. Two killers invade the small town of Summit and hold Nick and others hostage in a diner while they wait to kill Ole Andreson, a former boxer from Chicago with a murky past. Once the killers leave without their quarry, Nick volunteers, at the risk of his own life, to go to Andreson’s boarding-house and warn him of the killers’ presence. Andreson is unsurprised and resigned to his fate, and Nick returns to the diner depressed at the contemplation of Andreson’s impending death.
“The Killers” is the story of Nick Adams’s coming-of-age through a showing of heroism and his ultimate disillusionment as his courage fails to make a difference. Throughout the story, and according to Hemingway critics, it is clear that Nick is an adolescent. Indeed, the killers make persistent references to Nick as a “bright boy,” and the implication that Nick has not yet crossed into manhood is unmistakable. When the killers leave, George urges Nick to warn Andreson and Sam warns him not to; apparently both men are too afraid to go themselves, and the fact that Nick knows the risks but goes anyway is a testament to his courage and an indication of the fact that he came of age in that moment.
None of this is diminished by the fact that, at the very moment when Nick decides to warn Andreson, Sam ironically says “Little boys always know what they want to do.” Given that Sam’s perspective on the matter is that Nick should stay out of the Andreson dilemma for his own safety, he likely means that Nick’s decision is like that of a little boy because it is foolish, not because it is not courageous. What Sam views as foolishness Hemingway views as strength.
The apparent tragedy of this story is that Andreson expresses no alarm at his killers’ presence and will probably be gunned down without a struggle, but the true tragedy is that Nick’s selfless act of heroism produced no positive result and was therefore futile. Faced with Andreson’s unwillingness to do anything to prevent his own death, Nick returns to the diner and expresses his disappointment to George, who tells him not to think about it. Nick clearly feels the most strongly of the three men in the diner that Andreson’s dilemma is unjust; George doesn’t think about it and Sam doesn’t want to hear about it. Only Nick is left with a “damned awful” feeling not only about Andreson’s fate, but also about the fact that he risked his life for nothing. This, Hemingway implies, is the moment of disillusionment where a young man who has finally proved his courage in the face of danger is confronted with the fact that his sacrifice was in vain. The world is unjust, Nick has discovered, and this fact depresses him, as it depresses all of Hemingway’s other protagonists.
Nick is not the only courageous character in the story; indeed, the more obvious hero is Ole Andreson himself, who determines to face his killers stoically and without panic. According to Hemingway scholars, this attitude is known as heroic fatalism of fatalistic heroism. It is a testament to Hemingway’s skill at manipulating his readers’ emotions that Andreson is seen in a positive light. For all readers know, Andreson may be a killer himself or have other highly disreputable crimes on his conscience. It is through the portrayal of the killers as so evil and through Nick’s vouching for him that Andreson’s image is positive and even heroic rather than passive and weak.
The language in “The Killers” is simple and repetitive, emphasizing both the intellectual simplicity of the characters and the suspense of the situation. The exchange of short, sharp phrases between the killers and the three occupants of Henry’s diner has been likened to the exchange of machine-gun fire, and the atmosphere of the story is much akin to that of the hard-boiled genre that was popularized both in print and in film during the 1940s. “The Killers,” indeed, was adapted for the screen three times beginning in 1946.