Hardscrabble Crime in West Texas, 1937

Thieves Like Us (1937)

By Edward Anderson

Among the most glamorized and followed criminals of the Great Depression were bank robbers. How people might have found anything admirable in these people—among them Bonnie and Clyde, John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, Machine Gun Kelly, a sprinkling of the better known bandits—should be no surprise to those who experienced the Great Recession. As Anderson’s Bowie Bowers observes, “Them capitalist fellows are thieves like us….They rob widows and orphans.” If you find yourself nodding in agreement with Bowie then you’ll want to join him, his young girlfriend Keechie and his brothers in crime T-Dub and Chicamaw as they pull off a series of successful bank robberies, battle the “Laws,” and traverse west Texas of the 1930s.

Like many, if not most, of noir crime fiction of the period, the nihilism of the characters and plot are nearly palpable from the first pages of Thieves Like Us. These outlaws regard themselves as a unique band of brothers, an A-team of thieves like none other. At the same time, they continually express the idea their robbery proceeds are a stake on a settled life of little care. Of course, the next job lures them, like the Sirens leading ancient sailors onto the shoals. And here the old saying, “No honor among thieves,” bears no weight as these fellows, particularly Bowie, prove themselves to be a loyal bunch to each other. Irony abounds in this notion, as loyalty leads to some pretty bad outcomes for these guys.

Within Anderson’s tale of life on adrenaline and thievery, readers will discover a love story, that between Bowie and Keechie. With Keechie beside him, Bowie manages to breakaway from the gang for a while. He and Keechie set up housekeeping in the hills of west Texas and New Orleans, fleeing when locals seem too suspicious of them, neither realizing that they are the subject of regular newspaper features, much like Bonnie and Clyde, but also because Bowie can’t help acting out his aggression in even trivial confrontations; Anderson strikes a fine balance of innocence and viciousness in his Bowie.

Naturally, in period fiction as this, and especially in one heavily intertwined with fatalism, things can’t be expected to workout for the best, at least not best for characters like Bowie and Keechie. How the wheels come off the getaway car is left for readers to discover for themselves.

Notable for the way Anderson’s story rings with veracity (he based his novel on an interview with his cousin, Roy Johnson, who was serving a life sentence for armed robbery) and the effective use of argot, now pretty much extinct, which proves transportive. 

There have been a couple of film adaptations. Here are the opening couple of minutes of the 1948 version They Live By Night, and the trailer for Robert Altman’s Thieves Like Us 1974 adaptation.

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