Few wrote about the Depression with as much sympathy and insight as Edward Anderson, the author of Hungry Men and Thieves Like Us, yet he received little recognition or financial rewards. Part black-Irish and part-Cherokee, Anderson was born in Weatherford, Texas in 1905. He left school at an early age and took up his father’s trade, becoming a printer’s apprentice, but moved on to cub reporter for an Oklahoma newspaper. Within just a few years, he’d worked at more than ten newspapers in the Oklahoma-Texas area, but soon tired of journalism. He worked on a freighter for a time, seeking to fulfill his dream of joining the expatriate American writers in Europe, but arrived to find the Lost Generation heading home to America. He headed back to the US and tried prizefighting, and also had a bit of success as a musician playing trombone. Then the Great Depression hit and he took to the road, living the life of a hobo: riding the rails and roaming the roads, sleeping wherever he could, and asking for handouts or work as an itinerant odd-jobber.
His experiences during the depression informed the subject matter of his two novels. His first novel, Hungry Men (1933), is structured as a series of short stories. His second novel, Thieves Like Us (1937), about the exploits of three desperate escaped convicts, was widely acclaimed. It has been adapted to film twice–Nicholas Ray in 1949 and Robert Altman in 1974–and included in the Library of America anthology Crime Novels: American Noir of the 1930s and 1940s.
“Saturday Review of Literature called him the heir to Hemingway and Faulkner, while Raymond Chandler declared that Anderson was better than Steinbeck, and Thieves Like Us was ‘one of the best stories of thieves ever written…one of the forgotten novels of the 30’s.”
As the titles suggests, Thieves Like Us is about thieves: three bank robbers. At first successful, they buy nice clothes, guns, and faster cars and read about themselves in the newspapers. The central character of the three thieves, Bowie, was serving time for a murder he committed when only 16. Now on the run, he falls in love with Keechie, the cousin of one of his partners, who joins him.
As with Hungry Men, Thieves Like Us was gritty realism. Prohibition may have been repealed, but the Great Depression unleashed an infamous crime spree. Notorious gangsters like Dillinger, Baby Face Nelson, Pretty Boy Floyd, and Bonnie and Clyde made headlines, while across America desperate men felt driven to crime. Anderson interviewed bank robbers in Huntsville prison, noting their speech patterns and recording their stories and perspectives. The result is rich characterizations like T-Dub, who provides the novel’s title when he refers to bankers, politicians and the like as “just thieves like us” and uses colourful idioms like “it’s raining cats and nigger babies.” This depiction of people drawn into illegal activities by a combination of circumstances and their own attitudes is what makes Thieves Like Us a classic hardboiled proletariat novel. Saturday Review of Literature called him the heir to Hemingway and Faulkner, while Raymond Chandler declared that Anderson was better than Steinbeck, and Thieves Like Us was “one of the best stories of thieves ever written…one of the forgotten novels of the 30’s.”