Paul Simon reviews the latest novel from Dennis Broe, A Hello to Arms
Fresh from exposing the murderous and duplicitous Hollywood of the immediate post-war period, Harry Palmer finds his next commission broadly doing the same for California’s other boom sector of the time: aircraft manufacturing. As with Dennis Broe’s first outing for the ex-LAPD private investigator, A Hello to Arms is first and foremost a knowing homage to the classic US version of the detective genre. But it is also a respectful one, steering away from postmodernist sneering.
The author uses the required conventions: dry, if not always droll commentary, a hero teetering on the brink of earning the sobriquet ‘anti’ before that title, the over-use of coincidences ('I was in luck') and a cast of memorable and flawed characters, especially the female ones. But these fixtures and fittings allow Broe a huge degree of confidence and latitude to explore topics and develop narratives that are usually unreferenced or only obliquely noted in more traditional interpretations.
He even introduces a female Palmer sidekick, although the third person accounts of her novice investigations slightly jar against Palmer's stentorian first-person descriptions. This combination of familiar tropes seen through new perspectives also allows the reader to orientate themselves and immerse their attention in a thoroughly enjoyable story.
In this novel’s predecessor, East of Eden, Palmer found himself in a world dominated by exploitation built upon the aspirations of millions. A Hello To Arms is likewise focussed on exploitation, this time by the growing strength of the military-industrial complex and its tightening grip on US foreign and economic policy.
The lives of ordinary workers at Aerodynamics is especially dangerous and insecure, as the company looks to maintain its vast profits and beat back union organising efforts. Palmer is commissioned by Horace Williams an African-American who has been sacked from this job at the Stink Works, an especially secretive part of the complex. Whatever is going on there has impacted upon his client's memory and he is seeking compensation and some measure of justice. The sprawling interests of the arms industry are shown both in vivid descriptions of massive factory encroachments into the desert and through their embrace of the main political parties.
The novel's action is helpfully set during a series of rallies held by the Progressive Party presidential and anti-war candidate, Henry Wallace and soon Palmer is embroiled in investigating not just Williams' case but a political assassination as well. Being Harry Palmer, his manages to pick up a number of intertwined commissions along the way, further heightening the reader's sense that they are entering a moral and political maze with no obvious way out.
Broe more than hints at the impact of all this cross-stitched covert work on Palmer's own mental health as we see his downward despair into alcoholic and sex worker-infused binges. With references to contemporary 1940s culture and the blistering impact of racial injustices on individuals and whole communities , including a very personal playing out of the Tulsa riots, this novel is a mission accomplished. By being structurally true to its core genre, but endlessly extending it through a radical choice of issues and narrative backdrops, A Hello To Arms is a thoroughly enjoyable and successful literary mash-up.