Her office is in the New York State Office Building on125th Street in Harlem. It’s the late 70s, long before Harlem’s renaissance (Bill Clinton now has an office in the State Office Building) and 125th Street is filthy and dangerous,populated by derelicts and addicts and lined with crumbling abandoned buildings and deserted storefronts.
Norma’s job is supervising foster homes in the north Bronx. Her life is turned upside down when Leslie Powers, the only foster child on her caseload who has beaten the odds to graduate high school with honors and get a college scholarship, is found dead of an overdose in an alley in Harlem. The police have written off her death as just another black junkie who OD’d. However Norma and Ella Gaines, Leslie’s foster mom,refuse to accept that verdict.Ella Gaines, Norma’s sidekick, is also her role model, a feisty, outspoken force of nature who knows everyone who is anyone in the social service bureaucracy and wields political power within the Juvenile Authority establishment.
Also helping are two of Mrs. Gaines’s problem foster children — Kiris is a Puerto Rican girl who has a history of violent behavior, and Millie, an angry white foster child, who speaks in streams of obscenities and is fiercely jealous of Mrs. Gaines.In her personal life Norma, who is short, fat and massively insecure, hangs outwith her best friend, the tall, gorgeous and also insecure, Vicki. They spend time at various bars, coffee shops and singles events in Manhattan bemoaning the lack of men in their lives. However, as Norma pursues Leslie’s murderer the men she runs into keep on asking her out. Ironically she has to keep breaking dates because she is so busy tracking down a murderer.
In the end she learns that she’s a lot more attractive to guys when she’s too busy to obsess about them.The only clue to the murder is the last phone call Leslie got before she disappeared. It was from Harold Schine, the boss at her summer job, a slumlord who owns a bunch of run down buildings in the south Bronx. At the time of the story the Bronx was being systematically burned down by slumlords who couldn’t collect enough rent from tenants on welfare to keep the buildings profitable, so they burned them down and collected the insurance. Norma and Mrs. Gaines suspect Schine. Norma plants Kiris is in his office and discovers evidence that he’s got a scam going to put his buildings in the name of a dummy corporation, burn them down, collect the insurance, and then apply for redevelopment money to rebuild them.that somehow Leslie caught on to this scam and that’s why he killed her.In an suspense-filled plot development, Norma, Kirisis and Millie stake out one of Schine’s buildings which they know is going to be torched that night.
First they rescue the last remaining tenants, a pitiful old lady, and a teenage mom and her kids, and then they apprehend the arsonist, who implicates Schine as the person who paid him. Norma reports Schine to the police and then confronts him at his home in Long Island. He convinces her he has an ironclad alibi for the time of Leslie’s murder.Norma and Mrs. Gaines refuse to give up on searching for Leslie’s murderer. At the funeral for Leslie in the Bronx, Leslie’s long lost mother shows up. An ex-junkie turned holy roller, it seems she was planning to visit Leslie when she discovered Leslie had died.who accompanied her to the funeral, ushers her out.Norma reads Leslie’s old case record and discovers there was a trauma in her past. Leslie saw her mother kill her father at age 5 but forgot about it, or refused to remember it. At this point Norma and Mrs. Gaines suspect Leslie’s mother, guessing that Leslie remembered the murder and confronted her with it.They look up Jessica Stewart—her phone # was in Leslie’s phone book—and Norma visits her. Jessica reveals the big shocker—that she is actually Leslie’s father—a transsexual—and that his desire to be a woman drove Leslie’s mother crazy. She attacked her husband in a murderous rage when Leslie was 5, but unknown to Leslie, he actually survived and disappeared, getting surgery to become a female. When Leslie’s She faints, seemingly with grief, and Jessica Stewart, a mysterious “friend,”mother came to New York a few months earlier to visit Leslie she ran into her ex-husband, and went back on drugs as a result of the shock. Jessica knows that Leslie’s mother killed her—but didn’t call the police due to guilt over her own role in the whole
She tells Norma the current whereabouts of Leslie’s mother, an SRO in Harlem.In an exciting climax Norma visits Leslie’s mother and tries to convince her togive herself up, promising her a deal that Mrs. Gaines has worked out with the D.A. She tells Norma how and why she killed Leslie—but has no intention of giving herself up.Luckily Norma had the foresight to call Mrs. Gaines to tell her where she was going, because Leslie’s mother tries to kill her to keep her from going to the police.Norma puts up a valiant fight, but she’s no match for Leslie’s mother, who is built like a line backer. She is rescued by Kirisis and Millie who burst in just in time to save her fromcertain death.The characters gather at Mrs. Gaines’s at the end to reflect on the life and deat hof Leslie, and how everyone was a victim, even her mother.
Norma reflects on how her life has changed since she started investigating the murder, how she no longer feels so desperate about finding a man but has gained some confidence in herself as a woman and as a social worker.The themes of the complicated relationships between both blacks and white and blacks and Jews runs through the book, along with the difficulty of finding love if you’re over 30 and overweight. Norma, Vicki and Mrs. Gaines all have irreverent senses humor that lighten the seriousness of the social issues raised.
Readers will discover that very little has changed in the past 30 years when it comes to both race relations and the search for love in New York City.