On the Lam in America: Thieves Like Us – Edward Anderson

Thieves Like UsThieves Like Us by Edward Anderson

The American genre is probably the hard-boiled crime story. Sure, people had been writing detective stories in Europe for decades (and in China even before that!) and gothic fiction was occasionally preoccupied with the dark stuff, but it was American writers who turned from following the detectives to showing the criminals. To paraphrase Raymond Chandler, it was taking the vase and dropping it in the alley.

Enter Edward Anderson’s novel Thieves Like Us. Anderson’s novel opens with a jailbreak and follows three criminals on the lam, never stopping to show any other point-of-view. Together they hide out in shacks, bet on baseball games and drive along dusty backroads. It’s a boring life, only occasionally interrupted by bursts of violence: a car theft here, a bank robbery there. It’s a world away from the sensationalistic, white-knuckle crime sprees that Chandler or Hammett wrote about.

It follows three criminal friends: Chicamaw, T-Dub, and Bowie. They met in the pen, worked up the trust of the warden and escaped together, taking a hostage or two on the way. They steal cars and rob a bank or two, but generally spend most of their time hiding out and lying low. Soon, Bowie falls for the tomboyish Keechie and the two strike out on their own, robbing banks, springing friends from jail and generally causing a ruckus.

Ultimately, what makes Thieves… so interesting is the way it captures the boring, mundane life of a criminal hiding out – playing cards, listening to ball games on the radio – and for the way it juxtaposes this against sensational media accounts of this “dangerous” murderer/bank robber. Not only does he mix in newspaper headlines, but Anderson has his characters read about themselves in the paper and laugh about how the papers have gotten it wrong: they didn’t steal that much; they didn’t blow through that town. But the media has the last laugh, lording over their fate with a bombastic, barely accurate account.

In his preface, Anderson thanks a relative of his he spoke to, who was then in prison for committing crimes like these. It’s hard to shake the feeling that Anderson was pointing a finger at the media for playing up criminals to sell papers or at over-zealous cops, quick to shoot first and ask questions later. But at the same time, Anderson wasn’t exactly a socialist: he later expressed anti-semitic, far-right views. It’s a mixed legacy: I can’t help but wonder if Anderson was trying to make a greater point or just trying to make a quick buck.

Rating: 4/10. Whatever his intentions, Anderson’s novel still resonates some 80 years later. Sure, it’s a quick read and a little dated but generally, it’s interesting and surprisingly sympathetic at times. It’s been made into a good movie by Robert Altman, too. It doesn’t quite hold it’s own against authors like Cain or Hammett, but then again, who does?


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