We know D.C. Get our free newsletter to stay in the know.

The hard-boiled detective has been a tried and true mystery novel trope since the mid-20th century. So it’s probably a sign of the times that local mystery writer Cheryl Head depicts a quite different gumshoe heroine in her recently published novel Catch Me When I’m Falling: Aside from breaking the white, male mold—private eye Charlie Mack is African-American and a lesbian—she is, above all, empathic. She’s no tough guy; that would be her partner, Don.

Don pushes toughness right to the edge of bigotry. He also, in pure chauvinistic fashion, doesn’t clean up after himself. The women of his Detroit firm note his defects, which becomes a running commentary on the private eye stereotype. But Don’s typical genre tropes are useful. He objects to the story’s main case at the start, only to come around, as his hard-edged investigative talents spur the plot forward. He reveals an unexpectedly sympathetic concern for his partner.

The case involves the murder of a homeless man who helped rescue Charlie’s mother when she was a robbery victim. So it’s pro bono, and the client—the dead man’s friend, Reggie—is a wreck. Charlie goes undercover as a vagabond, quickly unearthing a string of grisly murders of people on the street. She traipses around Detroit with Reggie. Aimlessness surrounds these vagrants like prison walls; the one thing they all lack is purpose, adroitly revealed by the novel as a luxury of the gainfully employed.

Charlie’s tour guide, Reggie, a veteran and former seminarian, makes it through each day with plenty of cheap alcohol. “I don’t have any bills,” he explains. “I don’t eat a lot and I sleep outside unless it gets too cold. I can usually make twelve or fifteen dollars a day,” panhandling or doing odd jobs. Though Reggie has survived like this for years, the novel makes it clear that homelessness is staggeringly dangerous. During her investigation, Charlie disguises herself as a man, but it’s not entirely clear why the private detective does this—the only lacuna in an otherwise well-handled plot.

Charlie’s goal is “to get justice for Eddie and the eight other human beings who were treated like trash.” Though an admirable aim, the story itself demonstrates that most drifters are routinely treated “like trash” by the society around them. In a world that defines personhood by a financial metric, they are surplus beings. The novel depicts the trauma its homeless characters have survived—the emotional scars that set them on paths to living on the street, and the ways in which that life aggravates their original traumas. 

While the whodunit mystery propels the plot, the novel’s other centers of gravity are destitution and how it corrodes people. Perhaps that’s why the portrait of the detectives’ personal middle-class lives lacks something—and the writing of their lives sometimes comes off as wooden. Head’s strength is presenting the struggles of marginal people, not the domestic felicity of the better off. She can enter the addled mind of a drunk or drug addict or the jumpy insecurities of a transgender sex worker. She is also skillful at describing the little touches of kindness and humanity from the businessmen and women in the homeless district, gestures that may seem small but are greatly valued by those lost in the dizzying maelstrom of destitution.