New crime fiction novel ‘A Hello to Arms’ slams postwar capitalism in L.A.
The U.S. Navy aircraft carrier USS Yorktown at Naval Air Station North Island, San Diego, in June 1940 / Official U.S. Navy photo (public domain)

Dennis Broe’s new crime fiction novel starring private investigator Harry Palmer in his second Los Angeles outing has just appeared from Pathmark Press. Broe is the astute art, literature, film, TV, and video critic, based in Paris, whose informed commentary often graces the pages of People’s World. His many books include work on Abstract Expressionism as an artifact of Cold War ideology and the mid-20th-century noir sensibility in film.

The breadth of Broe’s range of interests and concerns is nothing short of stunning. The latest novel, while comfortably formulaic in the familiar ways that make the crime fiction novel a longtime staple of popular literature, is studded with crisp observations about society in the immediate postwar years like the glint of true metal sparkling out of the bleak, opaque night. Sadly, his lifting of the curtain of respectability that covers, in this case, the major arms and aeronautics industry at that time, reveals all too many parallels to today’s war-based economy. The U.S. seems doomed to bullying its way around the world (how about those 800 military bases we maintain?) with the effect, not so much of destroying its foes abroad but of impoverishing its own future with useless weaponry, paucity of investment in its own future, and a failed economy that serves an ever shrinking sliver of its population.

The manufactured enemy then was, of course, Soviet Russia, and even though it’s not exercising the role on the international stage it once did, Russia still looms large as a target of blame for the many systemic failures of the U.S.A. An even larger “threat” today is the emergence of a new superpower, socialist China. The postwar mutual security pact NATO (North Atlantic Treaty Organization), once meant to curtail and contain the Soviet socialist model, is now pivoting its focus eastward to Beijing at Washington’s behest.

The Harry Palmer trilogy kicked off with Left of Eden, a murder thriller centered around the Hollywood film industry during the Blacklist era. In this second book of the trilogy, we have Harry taking on two main clients and a couple of subsidiary ones. Client number one, Horace Williams, is an African-American defense industry worker who in 1948 has lost his job, claiming to be a victim of workplace contaminants on a top-secret military aircraft project. Harry will investigate on his behalf and help him get his pension, which leads him deeper and deeper into the corrupt aeronautics industry with its many unrepented Nazis lurking about. The second case involves the Henry Wallace presidential candidacy: Harry is asked to discover the leak in the campaign which is sabotaging its efforts to get off the ground. His two lesser cases involve a power couple in the aeronautics industry, a prominent general and his wife, each of whom hires him to spy on the other!

The hallmark of the genre is the author’s ingenious plotting, designed as a monument to the intricacy of a hyperactive mind. Connections are drawn among the seemingly most unrelated characters and backstories in a baroque explosion of tall tale-telling. How believable it all may be is, of course, far beyond the point. That’s what readers are looking for, and if it can be unspooled with a fresh, hardboiled voice, all the better.

What may be ultimately more significant to the reader is to appreciate not only how little human psychology has changed—if it ever does—but how many parallels can be seen between that time and our own. The American budget for making war is still the highest in the world as elements within the military-industrial complex seek ever more menacing threats from abroad, the establishment press is still churning out distortions of reality, the struggle continues between those forces that would want to regulate the worst excesses of capitalism and those that don’t, the unceasing drive for profitability at any cost, and the permanent stain of racism which appears to be sincerely addressed from time to time, and then just as surely reverts to the usual ugliness.

The City of Los Angeles and its greater environs are Harry Palmer’s stomping grounds. Especially for someone who lives here, reading about his escapades is an amusing time travel adventure, one that helps to explain why and how the area grew to what it has become.

Far be it from any reviewer to reveal any critical plot points or outcomes. It might be more illuminating to cite a few passages that impart some of the author’s considerable wisdom about the world. If and when the major motion picture is ever made, they’d hardly have to hire another scriptwriter: The smart, snappy, arch dialogue is all here.

“[I]n this town, in these days, in this country with the lawless hiding behind the law and using it to persecute the innocent and with the odds stacked against anyone getting a fair break, small victories count” (pp. 6-7).

“Movies pushed planes for air travel and warfare—just like fashion and home products—all rolling off American assembly lines as part of a new lifestyle” (p. 26). Broe speaks of Howard Hughes, famous for designing his fabulous flop of an airplane, the Spruce Goose, and who had now just bought the RKO movie studio: “It was a crazy, mixed-up world that was not so crazy after all—or rather, the way the industries intertwined was crazy like a fox” (p. 27).

“There is a battle going on for the soul of this country, Mr. Palmer,” says someone working on the Wallace campaign. “Is it to be a place that respects the common good, or one that is simply under the heel of corporate profits?” (p. 46).

“Grand Street had an all-night diner so I hiked across to it, passing the L.A. street traffic—junkies, prostitutes, and beggars inhabiting streets strewn with garbage. Somehow, they struck me as not the opposite, but the reverse side of the Reeses with their elegant, upholstered chairs. These denizens of the night were waylaid by sex, drugs, and their own problems with money while the Reeses were caught up in greed, ambition, and cut-throat competition. One group enacted their moral charade in daylight, the other threw morality aside at night” (p. 55).

Speaking of his new client Horace Williams, “He sat in the chair across from my desk without being invited in a way that indicated that he often had to push his way in to be seen in a white man’s world” (p. 12).

Broe includes much about the popular music of the day. In a dance club in South L.A., Horace says proudly: “Yep…Here we’re all the same. It’s what they’re afraid of. It’s a little glimpse of full equality, and it’s dangerous.” He pointed to the mixed Black and white crowd. “If it can happen here, it can happen anywhere, in the schools and on the factory floor. That’s what they’re so afeared of, why some of those white people spend more of their time dreaming up more ways to hu-mil-i-ate the Negro than on any other single endeavor” (p. 39).

Harry “wondered how long clubs like this one, a mainstay on Central Avenue and the place where a new music was being born, would be able to keep running. Trying to be a part of the California dream for some could be a nightmare” (p. 43).

“[T]he police were too busy with what he called ‘real murders.’ I didn’t say it, but couldn’t help thinking that when a white man kills a Negro, it’s an accident—but when a Negro kills a white man, even in self-defense, it’s a crime punishable by the electric chair. And that’s how the two worlds interact” (p. 78).

Speaking of the jazz singer and songwriter, Broe shows his familiarity with W.E.B. DuBois: “Dixie had the same trait as Horace: she knew both the white man’s tongue and the Negro dialect, and she could go back and forth between them. It was like she could, and had to be, two people when she spoke and acted in this divided world” (p. 86).

“This was the war industry having its cake and eating it too. Arming both sides and claiming its allegiance to the country outshined its desire to make a buck. Patriotism over profits, when really it was profitable patriotism” (p. 81).

“So, Reese’s boasting [about Reese Dynam’s aeronautics company] had been a charade. With American business—and I had seen this in the movie industry as well—the drop between the penthouse and the gutter was a short one” (p. 175).

General Glover pontificates: “The future of this great country is about the seamless intermixing of business, science, and the military” (p. 120). Later (p. 271) he’ll quip, “Enemies come and enemies go, but military spending is forever.”

A prominent Democrat in the Harry Truman campaign says, “We don’t use the word subsidize. We say ‘security.’ We’re in the business of promoting security, not giving money away to the weapons industry” (p. 203). “The layers of corruption I had turned up from both the Democrats and the Republicans sickened me,” Palmer muses, waxing Brechtian. “Were either of them guilty of murder, or were they just guilty of the everyday crime they called politics?” (p. 207).

Speaking of the guys he runs into at the American Legion post, “Were some of these people involved in a plot? I didn’t know. They looked like harmless old men, just trying to get through the last years of their lives in a way that gave them a little dignity in a country that had largely forgotten about them. But it was possible that for some, that weathered look was just a façade. Their shared recalcitrance and bitterness might be a danger to any force that was trying to move the country forward” (p. 136).

Broe introduces a World War I veteran who resides at the VA Hospital, reflecting on his multinational interventionist military career in shades that recall Major General Smedley Butler in 1934: “Was I a soldier or a gangster? Is there a difference? Isn’t George Patton just the legal flip side of Al Capone?”  (pp. 212-13). He sums up: “Decorations. Medals…. They’re cheaper than paying soldiers and taking care of vets” (p. 214). Palmer wisely concludes: “The epitaph of men like these was ‘Used by one uniform or another until they were used up, and then eliminated’” (p. 225).

One of Broe’s positive characters is a researcher who looked into the way German Big Business financed Hitler. Martin Nesbitt tells Palmer, “The US military and industrialists like Reese, as you found out, don’t fear war. They fear peace” (p. 206).

In the acknowledgments, the author references a number of sources he relied on, including the classic study of Los Angeles, Mike Davis’s City of Quartz. The Nesbitt character is based on James Stewart Martin’s book All Honorable Men. The occasional anachronism, such as “Bruno is a kind of ‘make love, not war’ guy” (p. 199), or Reese Dynam, imagining a military-industrial paradise while cutting the workforce, “He wasn’t asking what he could do for his country, but only what his country could do for him” (p. 254), could be taken tongue in cheek as obvious outliers to the period. More likely they are intentionally meant to confound all of American evolution into one steaming olla podrida of domination and exploitation.

Without having to say it in so many words, considering the period it’s set in, this is the picture of a noir world—and to a very great extent, we may still be in it. Still, Harry Palmer solves his cases successfully and lives to see another day: See the forthcoming volume three.

A Hello to Arms
By Dennis Broe
Pathmark Press, 2021, 295 pp.
ISBN: 9781005751166
Available in various formats.


CONTRIBUTOR

Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon is the author of a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein, co-author of composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography, and the translator (from Portuguese) of a memoir by Brazilian author Hadasa Cytrynowicz. He holds a doctorate in history from Tulane University. He chaired the Southern California chapter of the National Writers Union, Local 1981 UAW (AFL-CIO) for two terms and is director emeritus of The Workmen's Circle/Arbeter Ring Southern California District. In 2015 he produced “City of the Future,” a CD of Soviet Yiddish songs by Samuel Polonski. He received the Better Lemons "Up Late" Critic Award for 2019, awarded to the most prolific critic. His latest project is translating the fiction of Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese. The first two books, "Five Days, Five Nights" and "The Six-Pointed Star," are available from International Publishers NY.

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