Michael Eaude reviews The Precinct with the Golden Arm, by Dennis Broe, Pathmark Press 2020
This noir novel is the third of a trilogy set in Los Angeles in the late 1940s, the golden place and age of the P.I. novel, and featuring private investigator Harry Palmer. If the title rings a bell, it’s because it evokes Nelson Algren’s The Man with the Golden Arm. Like Algren’s masterpiece, The Precinct with the Golden Arm tackles drug addiction, though its viewpoint is quite different. The first novel in Broe’s trilogy, Left of Eden (2020), focuses on Hollywood and the blacklist; the second, A Hello to Arms (2021), on – you may have guessed! – the arms industry.
The late 1940s were times of political and social upheaval after World War Two. The USA and the Soviet Union had been allies in the war against Nazi Germany. After 1945, the Soviet Union was suddenly transformed into the USA’s main international competitor. The US ruling class needed to quickly change its citizens’ attitudes from support and respect for Moscow to hatred for dangerous ‘anti-patriotic communism’. Left of Eden explains the infamous government attacks on liberal Hollywood directors and actors, led by the HUAC (House Un-American Activities Committee). The novel shows the brutal pressures on these filmmakers’ jobs and freedom.
The late ’40s also saw the black people, Mexicans, and women who had been recruited into the arms factories in World War Two, squeezed out in favour of white men when the troops came home. A Hello to Arms features union resistance and explains how the big arms corporations that had profited from the war were lobbying for further war, as without government subsidies they would go bust. A permanent arms economy was being developed.
I have summarized the main themes of these two books as if they were essays, but of course they are novels and very enjoyable novels for any noir fan, with lots of winks to the classics of the genre. Raymond Chandler’s books of the time are the template. Ross MacDonald’s gentler and more thoughtful series of Lew Archer novels is also a reference.
Like Chandler’s Philip Marlowe, Broe’s private eye Harry Palmer is an ex-cop who is hated by the cops because he is more honest than most on a corrupt force. He investigates crimes including murder and discovers that murder may well be committed by the poor, but it is the powerful who organize and benefit from crime. Chandler’s well-known words from The Simple Art of Murder are worth repeating:
The realist in murder writes of a world in which gangsters can rule nations and almost rule cities, in which hotels and apartment houses and celebrated restaurants are owned by men who made their money out of brothels.
Broe is taking Chandler’s time (1940s), place (Los Angeles) and genre (private eye mysteries) to write novels in the same wisecracking style. He goes a step further than Chandler by pinpointing major corporations and the government itself as the organizers of criminal activity. And there are many resonances to recent times in his portrayal of this period that, in crushing liberal and leftist ideas, laid the basis for the United States of Reagan and Trump.
Whereas A Hello to Arms focuses on racism against black people, The Precinct with the Golden Arm exposes anti-Mexican racism. Investigating the arrest of Mexican teenager Teresa at the behest of her mother, Harry finds that the police see nearly all Mexicans as ‘criminal elements’ and keep them confined to poor neighbourhoods.
One of the cops attends Ku Klux Klan meetings. “Whites are like house cats,” he tells Harry. “They can be trained, but Mexicans are like wildcats who need to be caged”. I was ignorant of the extent of the colour bar in California. The land of opportunity is for whites only. California was part of Mexico until 1848, but a century later Mexican youth is harassed, slandered and killed by the police as a matter of course.
All three novels are set in Los Angeles, the city of industrial nightmare that could have been a paradise, between the ocean and the orange groves of the irrigated desert. It is here that the United States’ arms industry (the pillar of its economy) and film industry (the soft power, the ideological support for the state) are based. For the bosses, the cops busted the unions. For the immigrants who poured out of the Depression to work in L.A. factories, there were rock-bottom wages and segregated housing.
Dennis Broe skillfully combines the story of cop harassment of Mexicans with a plot concerning the pharmaceutical companies that are developing opiate painkillers. Recently, the Sackler family has been exposed in Patrick Radden Keefe’s magnificent Empire of Pain. Supposedly idealists offering a panacea of a pain-free world, the Sacklers have caused more addiction, havoc and deaths with their legal drugs (Oxycontin, in particular) than heroin. A similar family features in The Precinct with the Golden Arm. Broe shows that addictive drugs are sold both on the street and through the pharmacies. The latter is just as profitable and is legal.
Broe’s Harry Palmer is frequently beaten up, usually by the cops. A handsome, stubborn, tough guy, he is a bull in a china shop whose sole strategy is to charge straight at the enemy. He is a flawed hero, in the noir mould. He drinks too much and he hits on nearly every woman he meets. In a move away from classic noir – the novels are not just evocation of noir, but critiques of the genre’s clichés – Broe has Harry recognize his own defects and resort to a psychiatrist. She tells him he is unable to form any relationships because he was abandoned by his mother. The psychiatrist angle is good, though the explanation is somewhat simplistic. Nevertheless, Harry grows in this third novel and begins to overcome his obsession with sex, which gives him a chance of forming a relationship with Esperanza.
Broe has created Harry as ignorant – politics, history and culture pass him by. He hasn’t even heard of Henry Wallace, though Wallace was Roosevelt’s vice-president and in the novel is running a strong independent campaign for the 1948 Presidency. Harry’s ignorance is a useful strategy as the characters Harry interrogates have to explain the basics to him, and thus to the reader, who 75 years later also may well not know who Wallace was. Another example of this technique is when Harry casually comments that the Mexican Day of the Dead is like Halloween, which allows Esperanza to explain Mexican customs.
Dennis Broe is a well-known cultural critic, teaching and writing in New York and Paris. Crime films and novels are his main areas of study. His analyses of these in several books and many articles, including here on Culture Matters, document the role of propaganda in art, particularly when the state sought to realign American culture after the wartime alliance with the Soviet Union ended.
His ambitious attempt to explain the politics of a key period in US history through popular novels is admirable. Clearly, his politics are a hundred times better than Raymond Chandler’s racism, sexism and near-nihilism. Yet, inevitably, life, the sense of place, of character, in short the literary qualities, are superior in Chandler.
A couple of problems weaken Broe’s trilogy. His characters explain themselves too much. This is an innate difficulty in writing political novels: how the hell do you get your main point – the politics – into the fiction? It is also a common feature of non-fiction writers when they write fiction: too much explicit explanation instead of integrating it into the plot and the action. One of several examples is when Harry barges in on the smooth-talking, crooked scientist, Dr. Stevens. Instead of calling in his thugs to have the unwelcome detective thrown out, Stevens sits down and explains to Harry what his company are doing.
The second point of criticism is that nearly all the women have deep cleavages and breasts bursting from their blouses. Despite the trilogy being in part a pastiche of the classic, sexist crime novel, this portrayal of women has little justification. It’s fine to show Harry’s primitive viewpoint, but the author needs to distance himself from it. Even Crystal, Harry’s partner in detection, notes that a suspect’s “low-cut top had her breasts almost popping out”.
These points apart, Dennis Broe’s trilogy is a compelling read. Readers can enjoy the fast-moving linked plots and will be moved and angered by the crushing odds against the Mexican migrants Harry defends. Broe’s explanations of the politics of 1947 are a lot more relevant to our own times than at first appears. The rise of racism, the pervasiveness of police violence, the attacks on workers trying to defend their living standards, the pornography of violence in Hollywood films, the drive to war – all these familiar problems were weapons already being wielded 75 years ago by a ruthless ruling class.