Henrietta, "Hen" or "Henry" Von Harmon, is the daughter of Les & Martha Von Harmon. At the time of her father's suicide, Henrietta is the oldest of six children: Elsie, Eugene, Herbert, Eddie, and the preschooler, Jimmy. Twins, Doris & Donnie, are born posthumously. Henrietta is very beautiful, and she does not get along well with her mother, partly because Mrs. Von Harmon fears that Henrietta's beauty will get her into trouble, on the one hand; and scolds Henrietta for quitting jobs over sexual harassment.
Martha Von Harmon hadn't even known that she was pregnant with the twins when her husband died; after recovering from their difficult birth, she took in laundry to earn money for her family. Henrietta, then 14, started doing clean-up work for the Hennesseys' at their Poor Pete's bar. Mr. Hennessey is very protective of Henrietta. She also worked other odd jobs as she found them, but without Hennessey to protect her, men wouldn't keep their hands off of her.
The story and series begin in 1935. Henrietta's sister, Elsie, two years younger, has been doing sewing to help the family. The three older boys have been in school, but Eugene is pulled out to go to work when he is 15. Henrietta has a devoted admirer in a younger neighbor, but Stanley Dobrowski seems too young for her. Polly Smith, a friend of Henrietta's has persuaded her to reluctantly leave the Hennesseys and work as a higher paid taxi dancer. One night she dances with an attractive older man.
Henrietta learns the next day that Mama Leone, the floor matron has been murdered. The attractive older man turns out to be Detective Clive Howard, who was there doing some undercover work as the police were suspicious of the goings-on. He hires Henrietta, at double her present wages, to work undercover. This involves constant interaction, of course, which leads to an attraction between the two.