‘The Killers’ by Ernest Hemingway

As a writer, Hemingway preferred the world of soldiers and hunters rather than crooks and cops, but his short story ‘The Killers’ is one of the best crime short stories there is. Two men in black overcoats and derby hats enter a diner in a small town. The owner asks them for their order, but the two men do not know what they want and prevaricate. It eventually transpires that they are there to assassinate one of the regulars at the diner. What follows is a masterclass in veiled threats and subtle shifts in power as the two men assert their authority and control over the owner, the cook, and a customer called Nick Adams—all done almost entirely through menacing, Pinteresque dialogue. The situation is a kind of foreshortened version of Michael Haneke’s film Funny Games, with violence threatening to erupt at any time and the story seething with tension. And all this in just six pages.

First published in 1928. Collected widely, including in The Essential Hemingway, Vintage, 2004

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