Ernest Hemingway is one of the biggest names of 20th century literature. He won the Pulitzer and Nobel Prize in Literature in 1954, and his star seems in no danger of burning out even with tastes shifting away from the controversial sport of his beloved bull fighting and his outdated machismo. Though he didn’t write for the pulps, his spare dialogue and trim storytelling strongly influenced many hardboiled crime writers of his time and extending to crime-scrawling word slingers on the Internet today. Below I’ve selected six stories and two films that exemplify why, along with impresarios like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler, he helped define a genre directly with classics like “The Killers” and indirectly with more literature-infused offerings like “In a Clean, Well-Lighted Place.”
“The Killers” (short story, Scribner's Magazine, 1927)
“The Killers” first appeared in Scribner's Magazine. It features Hemingway’s frequent Nick Adams character who went from a young boy to an adult in the series and is generally considered to be the author’s alter ego. The tale opens with Nick in a lunchroom when two gangsters enter. They tie up Nick and the cook in the kitchen and then reveal to George, who runs the place, “We're going to kill a Swede. Do you know a big Swede named Ole Andreson?” George does know him because the Swede is a regular customer and a friend. When the intended victim never shows and the killers depart, George sends Nick to warn the Swede who seems strangely unconcerned as Nick informs him of his impending fate. To say the dialogue and plot is minimal—which at first appearances seems to be constructed like a play in rough draft—is an understatement, yet a fully developed story is presented, almost like a conjuror’s trick, as you read along. The only stumbling block by today’s standard is the decidedly coarse language. There are two dozen short stories featuring this character, all republished in the vital 1972 collection The Nick Adams Stories.
Trivia: Andre Anderson was a boxer from Chicago who allegedly took dives for organized crime, and when he eventually refused, he was murdered. It’s generally considered that Anderson was the inspiration for 'the Swede' in “The Killers” and another short story by Hemingway titled, “A Matter of Colour.” (Wikipedia)
“Now I Lay Me” (short story, Men Without Women, 1927)
It’s during World War I that Nick Adams has been wounded, as was Hemingway in real life, and has shell shock. As he recuperates in bed at night he reflects, “If I could have a light I was not afraid to sleep, because I knew my soul would only go out of me if it were dark.” He listens to the silk worms eating, and his mind begins playing games to stay awake and get through the night. First, he thinks of a stream where he fished as a boy to calm his nerves. When fishing no longer cuts it, he prays for everyone he ever knew as far back as he could remember until his contemplations bring him up to date enlisting in the war. Eventually his thoughts turn to another wounded man, John, in the bed next to his. They share a smoke and begin having what would constitute rather trite conversation. Hemingway, having learned his lessons well from Gertrude Stein, liked to present dialogue as it would be spoken which is often repetitive. The back and forth has John trying to convince Nick to find a rich Italian girl and get married. Uninterested with the exchange, Nick encourages John to go back to sleep which he promptly does with little effort. Nick returns to listening to the silk worms and remembering the streams he fished in his youth. “Now I Lay Me” is one of the finest examples of not a word wasted that the renowned hardboiled school of writers lived by (note: I say renowned because another cold fact of the golden era of pulp was writers who lived paycheck to paycheck often bloated a story to make ends meet).
“The Undefeated” (short story, Men Without Women, 1927)
Manuel Garcia, is a down-and-out bullfighter looking for work after being released from the hospital. He has to practically beg a promoter named Retana for a job and when Retana finally agrees, the matador is offered only a fraction of what he hoped. An omen of sorts is mounted on the wall behind the promoter:
Manuel looked up at the stuffed bull. He had seen it often before. He felt a certain family interest in it. It had killed his brother, the promising one, about nine years ago. Manuel remembered the day. There was a brass plate on the oak shield the bull’s head was mounted on. Manuel could not read it, but he imagined it was in memory of his brother. Well, he had been agood kid.
He meets up in a restaurant with Zurito, a picador and friend who tries to convince Manuel they are both too old, but Manuel knows Zurito will go into ‘battle’ with him one more time. A recurring theme in many EH tales is how a once-famous hero or celebrity is relegated to a burnout shell of a man. As Manuel prepares with Zurito for the fight, he observes the inattentive waiters and muses how “They had forgotten about him. They were not interested in him.” Other regular Hemingway themes like the need to remain overtly masculine and brave against unsurmountable odds, in this case, a bull that could gore him to death. The author would later compose other better-known stories of the grisly vocation, like The Sun Also Rises and the non-fiction, Death in the Afternoon, but my money is on this pithy story with a protagonist knee-deep in loserville and the only way out is what put him there.
”Fifty Grand“ (short story, The Atlantic Monthly, 1927)
Hemingway was an enthusiast of pugilism, and one can assume he could have spent a lifetime writing such stories between gin and tonics with ease. That’s not a knock because “Fifty Grand” is one of the finest sports stories ever written. The plot is similar in nature to the earlier mentioned “A Matter of Colour” and, according to Wikipedia, is one of the only two times that Papa had a character narrating the action. The account comes from the aging Jack Brennan who, at 37, realizes it’s time to end his career as a boxer. He has insomnia, misses his wife, and believes the next time he enters the ring will be his last. The day before the big event, he is visited by two “wise boys” named Steinfelt and Morgan. The reader is never told what they talk about, but it’s assumed he’s told to throw the fight. Later he tells his trainer, Jerry, that he can’t beat the young contender and is going to bet $50,000 against himself. A cutthroat and vivid little gem with an ending that is still making readers guess as to Jack’s decision. Film noir classics like Body and Soul and The Harder They Fall and even later hardboiled biographical sports dramas like Raging Bull owe a debt to “Fifty Grand.”
Trivia: The tale is possibly based on a real life fight between Jack Britton and Mickey Walker in Madison Square Garden on November 1, 1922 though there is some dispute among Hemingway scholars. (Wikipedia)
”The Capital of the World“ (short story, Esquire,1936)
This story encompasses a gathering of pitiful characters, drowning in sorrows, beginning with the backstory of three matadors in a Madrid hotel and folding in several other characters including a banderillero and two picadors. The three matadors are in various forms of bodily and mental decay: one had been seriously gored and hides his insecurities behind his jocular nature, the second spends most of his time in his room and looks as though one foot is on the banana peel, and the third used to be the superstar of the arena but his outdated style makes him a has-been. Various seemingly banal storylines criss-cross these washouts including two priests who complain about being in town two weeks and still not finding the man they came to visit. All threads lead to Enrique, a young dishwasher, and Paco, the main tragic protagonist, who begin practicing veronicas with napkins imagining themselves as great matadors. Things take a deadly turn when Enrique grabs a chair and ties two kitchen knives onto the legs and charges at Paco.
The story was originally published under the far more expressive ”The Horns of the Bull,” then changed to its present title and collected in The Fifth Column and the First Forty-Nine Stories, published in 1938. Source: (Wikipedia)
“A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” (short story, Scribner's Magazine, 1933)
It was very late and everyone had left the café except an old man who sat in the shadow the leaves of the tree made against the electric light. In the day time the street was dusty, but at night the dew settled the dust and the old man liked to sit late because he was deaf and now at night it was quiet and he felt the difference.
One can imagine the Edward Hopper “Nighthawks” painting of lonely souls gathered together at a brightly lit refuge in the middle of the darkness. Two waiters—one young and one older—watch closely after the old man because he has a track record of drinking too much and not paying. The younger waiter had heard the old man had tried to hang himself the week before and bemoans the fact that the drunk didn’t accomplish his goal, especially because he’d like to close at a decent hour to go home and go to bed. Eventually, the old man is asked to leave, and he does. It’s revealed that the elder waiter is also hesitant to depart, recognizing himself in the old man. Later at home, the elder waiter stays awake until morning because he’s afraid of the dark—afraid of dying really, though he can’t admit that—finally falling asleep as the sun comes up. Brilliant economy of words between the two waiters and a nice conclusion with the older waiter contemplating his bleak future. His comment “It is a nothing,” as he ponders the despair of those like himself driven to well-lighted places, is noir at its purest form.
Note: “A Clean, Well-Lighted Place” was published in Scribner's Magazine and then included in the 1933 collection, Winner Take Nothing.
To Have and Have Not (film, 1944)
To Have and Have Not is an adventure film (and the most overtly hardboiled entry on this list) directed by Howard Hawks, starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall in her first film. The original novel was broadly altered for the movie because, though Hawks admired Hemingway’s work a great deal, according to Wikipedia, “he considered To Have and Have Not a “bunch of junk,” and told Hemingway so. Both Hawks and Hemingway rewrote a majority of the book save the opening and a few of the characters and retaining the iconic title. It’s one of the few examples where the film is better than the book. The plot showcases fishing-boat captain Harry Morgan (Humphrey Bogart) assisting the French Resistance to smuggle some people to safety, however, that takes a back seat to the real life romance of Bogart and Bacall who fell in love on the set. The most famous scene has Bacall asking Harry, whom she’d nicknamed Steve, “You know how to whistle, don't you, Steve? You just put your lips together and ... blow.” Why is this film hardboiled? For starters, Bogart’s world-weary nature is intact from Casablanca (hell, this film is a practical remake of the earlier movie) and scenes like the bad guys spraying lead into a saloon full of patrons or Harry removing a bullet from a man’s wounded shoulder doesn’t come grittier. Also the wry dialogue sparkles: “You're both going to take a beating 'til one of you uses that phone. That means one of you will take a beating for nothing.” A classic not to be missed.
Trivia: Author William Faulkner, “out of print and broke,” was on the payroll helping with the script. (Wikipedia)
The Killers (film, 1946)
This American film noir directed by Robert Siodmak is arguably the greatest adaptation from EH’s work. It stars Burt Lancaster in his movie debut and Ava Gardner as the femme fatale, Kitty Collins, who gives new definition to cold hearted. When the ‘Swede’ (Lancaster) asks her, “Why did you ever go back to him, Kitty?” she replies, “Maybe because I hate him. I'm poison, Swede, to myself and everybody around me! I'd be afraid to go with anyone I love for the harm I do to them! I don't care harming him!” The story begins like the EH short with two hit men arriving in a small town searching for Ole “the Swede” Andreson. The Swede is warned but makes no attempt to escape and is killed. Through flashbacks we learn that he was a boxer whose career was cut short and instead of joining the police force as suggested by his friend Lt. Lubinsky (my favorite line comes from Lubinsky: “Don't ask a dying man to lie his soul into Hell.”), he falls in with a bad crowd that includes the hard to resist Kitty. He ends up serving three years prison time but his rough stretch and downfall is just beginning.
Though he didn’t always write about criminals and gangsters, Ernest Hemingway is considered by many to be a founding father of the hardboiled genre when weighing all the tales he wrote with gritty subject matter and down-on-their-luck protagonists. Tales that can certainly satisfy any hardboiled reader’s needs.
Anyone else have a Hemingway favorite to add to the list? Or perhaps a different author who’s not normally mentioned in the hardboiled pulp arena but deserves their fair due?