Set in the dusty small towns and country roads of Depression-era Oklahoma and Texas, Edward Anderson's 1937 novel, "Thieves like Us" is an early example of American hardboiled noir. The novel describes the bank robberies and other criminal activities of a gang of three men, Bowie Bowers, 27, Chickamaw, 35, and T-Dub,44. The three have escaped from a prison in which they had been serving life sentences and embarked upon a spree of crime. The youngest, Bowie, had been sentenced to death for murder but had his sentence commuted.
Much of the book involves the fates and characters of these three sometimes comrades who are tough, violent, and yet sympathetic to varied degrees. The book begins with a kidnapping and robbery and the crimes don't let up. The trio rob several banks, as Anderson sets up and describes the scenarios and the towns in fast-paced detail. Of the three characters, T-Dub dies in a shoot-out following a robbery while Chickamaw barely survives the shooting and receives another life prison sentence.
The focus of the book is on young Bowie, a loyal, willing yet strangely innocent member of the group. Bowie admits he enjoys his life of crime and robbery, yet there is something quiet and decent about the man. He tells himself he is going to leave crime after one more heist and settle down to a life of peace in Mexico. Early in the book, Bowie meets a young woman named Keechie, the hardscrabble daughter of an accessory to the three. Laconic and reserved, Keechie has little use for Chickamaw and T-Dub. When Bowie suffers severe injuries in a car accident, which also leads to murder charges, Keechie nurses him faithfully to health and promises to stay with him. Bowie aptly nicknames her "The Little Soldier".
For all the focus on the men and their crimes, Little Soldier Keechie became for me the dominant figure in the book. She shows a virtually absolute loyalty to Bowie while caring for him and advising him well. The pair leave Oklahoma and try to settle down in remote Southern Texas and to forget Bowie's past. The fear of detection forces a move to New Orleans. Bowie's severely misplaced loyalty to his friends and an ache for the fast life doom the couple's attempt to forge a new life. Keechie's loyalty to Bowie is sorely tested but holds. In her faithfullness, trust, and prudence, Keechie is indeed a "Little Soldier" and endearing. The nature of loyalty, both when it is pursued with love and when it is misplaced, is at the heart of "Thieves like Us".
The book captures the atmosphere of the Depression and of low life. Comparisons drawn between the criminal life, and the activities or capitalists, bankers, lawyers, and the police figure inevitably in the plot but are not overly intrusive. The dialogue is sharp and focused and makes extensive use of the slang and idioms of the day and place. Much of the story is recounted through newspaper articles that Bowie and his compatriots read while on the lam. For all his near success, Bowie proves shockingly naive in his judgments of people as he destroys himself and a love that could have led to happiness.
As with the best of noir, "Thieves like Us" transcends genre writing in its portrayal of character and place. Anderson (1905 -- 1969) sold the film rights to his novel for $500, and the book was filed twice: "They Live by Night" directed by Nicholas Ray in 1950, and "Thieves like Us" directed by Robert Altman in 1974. The novel is available in a single book, reviewed here, or in a compilation of classic American Noir of the 1930s and 40s in the Library of America series. "Thieves like Us" is a worthwhile, gripping novel that will interest readers fascinated by noir or by American literature.