“The streets were dark with something more than night.” - Raymond Chandler
“Come on Pals … We got tall tracks to make.”
As befits his picaresque and desperado-driven tall-tracks tales of crime and life on the run, the biographical details of Edward Anderson’s career itself suggests a by-his-wits, on-the-lam life.
Born in 1905 and raised in Texas and Oklahoma, Anderson knocked around the Southwest working as a journalist at several newspapers. Soon enough, though, he turned to fiction, getting invaluable tips from pulp writer John Knox, a friend and neighbor. Anderson sold his first piece, a prizefight story titled “The Little Spic,” to a sports pulp mag, but after that he hit the road in rudderless wanderlust, taking Depression-era hard knocks on the chin and hoboing his way on the rails in scofflaw sprees and a soup kitchen subsistence of odd jobs and hiding from “the Laws.”
The colorful write-what-you-know experiences went toward the writing of Anderson’s first novel, 1935’s Hungry Men, about an aimless, out-of-work musician hopping freight trains and finding adventure and love with an unemployed New York typist. As he waited for the publication of the book, Anderson moved to New Orleans and started writing “true crime” stories — such as “The Mystery of the Man with the Cardboard Box” and “Twin Trunk Murders” — for sensationalistically-illustrated magazines such as True Detective and Master Detective.
In the course of this true crime stint writing these retellings of actual crimes, Anderson also had the opportunity to cross paths with many out-of-the-ordinary personalities, including Louisiana’s official hangman, who had trained for his position by putting a noose on his pooch and letting loose.
Perhaps hanging Fido in the interest of career advancement was a contributing catalyst for Anderson’s move away from stories of gruesome murders to a tale — in his second and final novel, 1937’s Thieves Like Us — of a Texas-Oklahoma-set bank robbery binge. In a Bonnie-and-Clyde-style mold with a panhandle proletarian bent at odds with Anderson’s downwardly-spiraling later life (until his death in 1969) of Nazi sympathies, anti-Semitism, and crackpot religion, Anderson took a cue from a passage in Hungry Men: “The difference between a bank president and a bank bandit is that the robbery of the banker is legal. The bandit has more guts.”
This great-unwashed stance, bordering on forced rationalization at times, is extended in Thieves Like Us to distinguish the somehow deserving bandits — namely, in this case, Bowie, Chicamaw, and T-Dub — from the more prevalent thieves like them, like the police, lawyers, doctors, “them capitalist fellows," and politicians who “use their damned tongues instead of a gun.”
Of course, with all this resistance from the powers that bedevil, it’s no wonder that the felonious center will not hold in the face of unexpected and haphazard violence. The events that don’t run smoothly include, naturally, the course of true-enough love when circumstance and fate forces into lam-dom Bowie and a scornful but still hopeful young miss, Keechie, as the couple attempts to stay a few steps ahead of the Laws.
During their escape we get a visceral evocation of the Great Depression-fed desperation and apprehension, and the idiosyncratically rendered sense of the American Southwest where “The moon hung in the heavens like a shred of fingernail,” and “Crickets in the roadside grass sounded like wind in loose telephone wires.” In addition, the tire-treaded two-lane blacktop slicing through an expansive desert landscape is vividly exemplified: “The highway stretched on like a long ribbon of wet funeral cloth; the rain-drunk weeds of the right-of-way rushing behind.”
Really, it is at this midway getaway point in the narrative of Thieves Like Us (made into a 1949 Nicholas Ray film re-titled They Live By Night) that a more compelling and page-turning discernment of hardboiled doom and suspense takes over, along with a little ambivalence. Sure, we appreciate the tough-as-nails bravado of Bowie when he declares, “I never robbed nothin’ that couldn’t stand being robbed.” But a more sociopathic streak breaks through from time to time when his feelings toward Keechie are couched in terms that aren’t necessarily ones of endearment:
- Strength swelled within him. I can snap her little body. I can break her little body in my grip. Her tight lips yielded until there was only softness and then her breath became as naked as her body.
Nothing like a little unease and well-planted seeds of doubt to enliven a honeymoon only just begun, with miles to go before a sly little surprise of an ending — one that Bowie should’ve anticipated early on, really, with T-Dub’s warning about “sore women and snitches.” But that’s part and parcel of the travels and travails with and of Thieves Like Us. Just be glad you’re along for the ride.