Private detective Harry Palmer returns in ‘The Precinct with the Golden Arm’
Skyline of Downtown Los Angeles, 1946 / Pettit’s Studio (public domain)

“There has certainly been an arrest wave since the [Zoot Suit] riots,” she said. She being Esperanza—“hope”—the female lead of Dennis Broe’s latest L.A. crime novel, with the same name as the heroine of the left-wing film Salt of the Earth, played by Rosaura Revueltas. “But actual crime as far as I can tell, has not increased. Things got so bad for Mexicans at that time that the president’s wife, Eleanor Roosevelt, stood up for us, saying that the problem was prejudice on the part of the police and city officials and the arrests were not evidence of moral corruption. For that, the LA Times labeled her a Communist.

“They arrest us for all kinds of made-up crimes. If we’re not dressed like Anglos with polo shirts and sunglasses and instead if our boys have dust from the farms they work on their shoes and pants or our girls wear tight sweaters, they pick us up for vagrancy.”

The Precinct with the Golden Arm is the third and announced final entry in Broe’s trilogy collectively dubbed “Calamitous Corruption,” featuring disgraced ex-homicide detective Harry Palmer, now precariously supporting himself as a private detective. The series began with Left of Eden, centering the Hollywood film industry in 1947 as the blacklist rolled in, followed by A Hello to Arms, about the establishment of Los Angeles as a critical site of aeronautics and weapons production as the Cold War competition grew with the emerging socialist countries. Each of these titles, moving approximately one year forward in time, is a takeoff on signature cultural artifacts of the period—Steinbeck’s East of Eden, Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms, and The Man with the Golden Arm, the Nelson Algren novel about heroin addiction that became the 1955 film noir directed by Otto Preminger.

Aside from being an accomplished novelist, Dennis Broe is an astute arts critic specializing in film. His timely reviews and analyses often appear in this publication.

In Precinct, Broe’s attention turns to the seamy world of the LAPD, a major prop for a racist political and economic system that promotes an image of the Mexican-American community in Boyle Heights and other areas of East L.A. as criminal and insubordinate, and in need of firm police control. Hiding in the Hollywood background, meanwhile, are the Ku Klux Klan and the burgeoning pharmaceutical industry at a time, post-penicillin, when visions of a contented consumer-oriented middle-class culture enabled Americans to imagine life free of pain and anxiety, a life that could be obtained with the helpful new balms, bromides, and compounds coming out of Big Pharma’s research laboratories. All these elements combine and collide in a cleverly integrated story that will keep a reader fully engaged to the last page and beyond.

At the same time, Harry himself has been considerably tossed around by life. The novel explores his own emotional and romantic growth—with the help of the also still new practice of psychotherapy that will aid his struggle with a troubled past.

“For me one of the fun aspects of writing a historical novel,” the author writes, “is the way it resounds in the present.” None of the major themes in the three Harry Palmer adventures has gone away—anti-communism, militarism, racism and police violence, addiction, political corruption, nor, of course, murder and mayhem—all of which most forcefully impact minority populations. Broe cites a former London police chief who “described a good year as one where ‘we arrest more criminals than we employ.’”

Here’s another exchange of dialogue, between Dr. Clyde Stevens, honcho of a pharmaceutical firm ominously called “Omerta” (Omertà, you will recall, is the Mafia code of silence about criminality and a refusal to rat to the authorities), and our protagonist Palmer, who has zeroed in on his prey:

“We need to expand, and the new horizon is pain,” says Stevens. “There are in fact pains that people have they may not even be aware of yet. It’s our duty to point them out and develop painkillers. Omerta is now close to launching its first painkilling miracle drug, which should put us on the road to profitability for years to come….”

“What you’re telling me,” Palmer answers, “is that you and the other companies are nothing but a legalized drug cartel, in the practice of convincing customers they need your drug, getting them hooked on it, and using these ever-deadlier drugs to eliminate the competition. You’re not in the business of healing, you’re in the business of addicting.”

My only real criticism (apart from a few typos) is that this thought is expressed many more times than necessary by way of differentiating the small-time pikers on the street from the corporate drug profiteers. I was struck by Broe’s reference to a styrofoam cup, but this product was not in common use until the 1960s.

Among the joys of reading this triptych, this final chapter no exception, is being transported to the L.A. of the immediate post-war years, where some real characters are introduced alongside the fictional ones. For example, a great hero among Mexican Americans was Edward Roybal, who had just been elected to the City Council (and later to Congress). His campaign cannot be overstated as a force that brought together not only the Mexican-American community as a critical voting bloc, but also attracted the support of democratically minded other citizens who saw in minority representation great hope for the city’s, and the country’s future. Future police chiefs William H. Parker and Daryl Gates also make cameo appearances. Roybal’s principal political advisor, named Max Weinhardt here, is positively portrayed as a not-so-closeted Jewish gay man with a Latino lover.

Reading The Precinct with the Golden Arm is almost like taking a guided tour around the city and its immediate environs, as one escapade tumbles upon the next, taking Palmer out to the white suburbs, the multicultural East Side, the bars, alleys and housing projects of the lower class, police stations, morgues, and the mansions of the wealthy. Broe’s dedication is “To Ismael, Teresa, and all those who keep intact the history of struggle of Boyle Heights.” Since I visited with Dennis a couple of times during his monthlong research trip to L.A.for this book, I happen to know that he is referring to Ismael Parra and Teresa Gonzalez, both of whom have contributed articles on L.A. to People’s World and who know the city’s Latino history intimately. They spent a whole day escorting Dennis around for a look-see, which helped him to perfectly nail in words the physical environment of his setting.

Edward Roybal is sworn in as the first Mexican-American councilman for the City of Los Angeles, 1946. Also present in the photo are Edward Davenport and Walter C. Peterson / Los Angeles Daily News (licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International license)

Broe includes a helpful bibliography which explains where he derived factual information for the book, help on the colorful Mexican-American slang he introduces (not entirely correctly in some cases), and the rich social history and atmosphere. His extensive two-page list of acknowledgements [sic] is generous to a fault and includes (full disclosure) this reviewer.

Typical of writing in this genre is the vertiginously paced action, barely leaving the reader time to assimilate what just happened, and it is full of wonderfully arch period language and sly plays on words. A couple of short samples will have to suffice:

Harry Palmer’s antagonists are a pair of mean, racist cops whom he’d already tangled with when he had been on the force. “Higgins and Case looked at me cross-eyed. They would not soon forget this. My client was free, but I figured I had better make myself scarce in this neighborhood or I would be persona non breathing. Justice had prevailed over the letter of the law, and that was always going to make some of those charged with enforcing those laws angry.”

Palmer warns Max to escape from a gay porno movie house just in time to avoid being picked up by the cops who are pursuing him. In Max’s place, wearing the consigliere’s trench coat, they find Palmer instead.

“Where’s Weinhardt? We know he frequents this place.”

“Don’t know who you’re talking about,” I said. “Why don’t you [two] take a load off and enjoy the show?”

The Precinct with the Golden Arm is available in digital and paperback from Amazon, Nook, Apple, and Kobo.

The Precinct with the Golden Arm
By Dennis Broe
Pathmark Press, 2023, 267 pp.
ISBN: 9798370014215


Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.