The Quick Recap and Section-by-Section Summary for The Night Swim by Megan Goldin are below. Spoiler warning: these summaries contains spoilers.
For a non-spoiler version of the plot synopsis, see The Bibliofile's review of The Night Swim by Megan Goldin.
Rachel Krall is a true crime podcast host who goes to a small town, Neapolis, to report on a trial. Scott Blair is accused of raping of a 16-year-old girl, Kelly Moore. Meanwhile, Rachel starts receiving letters from a woman named Hannah, asking for help regarding the rape and murder of her older sister, Jenny Stills, in Neapolis 25 years ago. (The book intersperses letters from Hannah and Rachel's podcast episodes throughout the story.)
As Rachel investigates and the trial begins, she learns that Kelly had gone to her friend Lexi's house for a party, but was kicked out for kissing Lexi's ex-boyfriend. A boy from school, Harris Walker, walks her home and takes her to a playground to hang out. (At trial, it's alleged that Scott told Harris to lure here there). Harris leaves momentarily and Scott shows up. Scott is a minor celebrity because he's a swimmer training for the Olympics. Scott takes Kelly out for pizza and then later they go to the beach. Depending on who you ask, she is either raped or they have consensual sex.
Meanwhile, Hannah writes to Rachel about Jenny's case. She and Jenny's mother, Hope Stills, had a bad reputation because her daughters have different fathers. One day some boys from the beach take an interest in Jenny. They offer Jenny (16) and Hannah (9) a ride home from the beach, but kick Hannah out and rape Jenny. They later come back for more. Hannah sees it and tries to stop them, but it still results in an incident where Jenny dies. Afterwards, Jenny's name in town becomes synonymous with being a slut.
Rachel finds out that in town people believe that Jenny simply hit her head on some rocks and drown. She finds out at the morgue that her injuries are inconsistent with an accident, but there was no police investigation. Incidentally, the night of Jenny's death, two other teen boys were killed in a car accident in town. Meanwhile, as the trial proceeds, Kelly begins her testimony, but is too traumatized by the cross examination. Her parents decide not to let her finish testifying. This means they will likely lose the case.
Rachel notices that there's a similarity in the two cases. In Hannah's story, one of the boys, Bobby wraps her up in a shirt to hide her. In Kelly's story, she wakes up to find a short wrapped around her. Rachel remembers seeing a man do the same thing to a seagull. She confronts the man, "Vince Knox" who admits that his real name is Bobby Green. He was one of the boys (though he didn't rape Jenny). He was sent to jail for driving the car in the accident where the two boys died. He befriended Vince Knox in jail (who died in prison), so he took on Vince's name to give himself a new start. The next day, "Vince"/Bobby testifies in court that he heard what happened between Scott and Kelly and that it was rape.
Hannah is also finally ready to meet. The gas station attendant that Hannah had gone to for help 25 years ago is now dying of lung cancer. He has nothing left to lose so he finally admits that he saw a boy, now a man, running off from the scene of the crime the night of Jenny's death. It was Dan Moore, father of Kelly Moore (his connection between the two cases is a coincidence).
Hannah asks Rachel to meet, where Hannah also plans to confront Dan. Dan confesses that, that night, Bobby had attacked them when the boys threatened Hannah, and Bobby was injured. They left an injured Jenny on the beach initially to take Bobby to the hospital, but he drove back and threw Jenny into the water, where she drowned. Afterwards, he drove off and got into the accident, killing his friends. Dan called his father, Russ Moore, who was Chief of Police in Neapolis. Russ made it look like Bobby was the driver, and told Dan to lie and say he was home that night. Russ ensured there would be no investigation of Jenny's death. Bobby was sent to jail for the deaths of his friends. Jenny's death was ruled an accident.
In the end, Scott is found guilty of sexual assault and sexual battery (though insufficient evidence for rape). Dan makes a getaway, but then kills himself. The book ends with Rachel leaving town and her producer talking about a case for the next season of the podcast.
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Chapters 1 – 6
A police officer comes by to report a death of a 15-year-old girl, Jenny Stills, to her mother. He then escorts her 9-year-old sister, Hannah, to the hospital to treat her wounds. 25 years later, Hannah wants to talk about it.
Elsewhere, Rachel Krall, a very popular investigative true crime podcast host, stops at a diner for food. She finds a note on her windshield from Hannah afterwards asking for help in investigating Jenny’s death, asking to meet with Rachel at Morrison’s Point jetty in Neapolis. Rachel is unnerved, because she purposely has kept a low profile and doesn’t know how this person has recognized her. She gets a lot of letters from podcast listeners, including some like this wanting help. She calls Pete, her producer, who is in the hospital to tell him about her letter.
Rachel is headed to Neapolis to report on a trial for Scott Blair, accused of raping a girl, Kelly Moore (who Rachel nicknames “K”). Rachel explains on her podcast that she felt compelled to cover this due to a rape she had covered as a crime reporter of a girl she nicknamed “Cat Girl“, who was raped after leaving a jazz club. She was always bothered by the way Cat Girl was victim-shamed after her death.
Against her better judgement, Rachel goes to the jetty to find Hannah in Neapolis. At the jetty, there is another note, explaining that Jenny is her older sister and she died here. Their mother lost her will to live after Jenny’s death and passed away from her cancer a few weeks after. Hannah was moved in with a loving foster family, but she still had constant night terrors.
Chapters 7 – 12
On the podcast, Rachel explains that “K” was attacked while crossing through a field late at night. She walked to her friend Lexi’s house for a small party, but by 9 PM the party had gotten out of control. K drank many cups of soda, but they’d been spiked with vodka. K ends up making out with Lou Lowe, Lexi’s ex-boyfriend that Lexi still likes. Lexi finds out and angrily kicks K out of the party, with K’s bag and phone still inside. K decides to walk back home. About halfway, Harris Wilson, a boy from the party, catches up to her and offers to walk her home. They end up hanging out at a playground three blocks from K’s place. Harris runs home to grab a joint for them, and K promises to wait for him there. Soon, an intruder shows up.
At her hotel room, Rachel is surprised and unnerved to find a map of the local cemetery with Jenny Still’s grave site marked on it. She finds out from the front desk that a woman called in (pretending to be Rachel) and asked them to put the map in her room. Later, Rachel goes to check out the site and finds Jenny’s grave site and that of her mother. On Jenny’s headstone someone has graffiti-ed the word “WHORE”. There’s a card and bouquet there, too, which Rachel takes with her.
Rachel also finds another letter from Hannah on her room service tray. In the note, Hannah apologizes for not meeting her. She meant to show up, but going back to that spot was too overwhelming. Hannah also tells her more about Jenny’s death. They had gone to the beach when some boys had asked Hannah for her number so they could call Jenny. Hannah didn’t know it and said their phone wasn’t working, and so the boy left.
Chapters 13 – 15
Rachel meets with Kelly’s father, Dan Moore. Dan is a Navy man whose father was a cop. He’d been reluctant to talk at first, but after Scott had done so many media interviews portraying himself as the victim, Dan wanted to tell Kelly’s side of the story. Dan talks about how depressed Kelly is after the attack. Dan recalls how freaked out he’d been after Kelly hadn’t come home and he’d discovered she had left the party early.
The prosecutor in the case is Mitch Alkins, a former defense attorney. Rachel finds it strange that Mitch has suddenly become a prosecutor after defending so many murderers and rapists, but Dan knows him and firmly believes Mitch can win the case. Neapolis is a small town, so everyone knows each other. Dan also went to school with Greg Blair, the father of Scott Blair. The judge in the case, Judge Shaw, went to the same school too, but was four years ahead of Dan and Greg.
The next day, Pete calls and Rachel updates him, but he expresses concern when she says she’s also pursuing the Hannah case. Rachel heads for the library to search the newspaper archives, to find three paltry blurbs. She learns that Jenny drowned at the jetty in the summer of ’92. Police believed she jumped in to go swimming and hit her head on the rocks. Later that year, the case was closed and ruled and accidental death. Rachel wonders why there was so little public interest about the death. When she asks the police station for files, they say they have no record of Jenny Stills in their system.
Chapters 16 – 20
Rachel goes to see Detective Nick Cooper to ask about the Kelly Moore case. Nick had made the initial inquiries on the case when Kelly had gone missing. He had questioned Harris, who had been cagey and nervous. Harris admits that he’d left her in the playground, but just for a few minutes. Kelly wasn’t there when he got back. Harris was later charged with aiding and abetting, but took a plea deal. Afterwards, Rachel grabs a meal at the Blue Sea Cafe and finds out Hannah has paid her bill and left yet another letter for her.
In it, Hannah writes about how she had asked Jenny to stop at the Old Mill Road gas station, run by a guy named Rick, to grab an ice pop after they were walking home from the beach. There, a pickup truck rolls up with the boys from the beach. They offered to give Jenny and Hannah a ride. Jenny said no at first, but Hannah pleaded with her. Hannah was tired and it looked like rain, so Jenny accepted. They sat in a way that boxed Jenny in-between the boys. One of the boys is named Bobby. Near their home, they told Hannah to get out, but then didn’t let Jenny out and drove off with her. Jenny came home late that night, covered in bruises and was unable to get out of bed for days.
On a whim, Rachel goes to the Old Mill Road gas station to see if Rick is still there. He’s not, but the attendant directs her to Sally Crawford, who knows where Rick is. Sally is dismissive when Rachel mentions Jenny’s death. She says Jenny was the town slut and that Hannah being raised by foster parents was the best thing that could’ve happened to her. Rachel also goes to the jetty where a man yells at her to go away and mentions how there’s no rocks there for Jenny to hit her head on, so it is clearly inaccurate that she died that way.
Rachel also goes to visit Scott Blair’s house. Scott father, Greg, is a fan of the podcast. He explains that he had been a champion swimmer and talks about how the trial will affect his career. Greg talks more, trying to humanize Scott in Rachel’s eyes. However, he doesn’t allow Rachel to speak with Scott. She sees Dale Quinn, Scott’s fancy lawyer, at the home as well. Rachel knows of him and that he’s good at winning over juries.
Chapters 21 – 23
On the podcast, Rachel explains that Scott was a semi-celebrity, as a swimmer training for the Olympics. Scott had recently gotten a minor calf injury and his coach told him to take a few days off, which was why Scott was back in Neapolis. Scott sees K and offers her a ride home. However, they end up driving along the coast and going to a pizza place. Afterwards, they go to a beach, and depending on who you ask, K is either raped or they have consensual sex. He ditches her at the beach, though his parents claim it’s because she didn’t want anyone to see him dropping her off at home. Rachel also explains that at the time, Scott was in a competition with his friend to see who could have sex with the most girls in a 30-day period, and Scott had been losing.
Rachel shows up to the first day of the Scott Blair trial, beginning with the prosecution’s opening arguments. Mitch explains the sex competition and how Scott was determined to have sex with Kelly. Mitch explains how Scott covered his tracks. too. Harris was told to lure her to the playground so Scott wouldn’t be seen with her, and Scott got her to wash off in the water to (unsuccessfully) clean off forensic evidence. Afterwards, Quinn gives the defense’s opening arguments. Quinn talks about how great and promising Scott is and the volunteer work he does. He says that the sex was consensual and that Kelly was angry after learning that Scott was boasting about it.
Chapters 24 – 28
Afterwards, on the podcast, Rachel discusses that courtroom theatrics of the lawyers and explains the dynamics of the jury selection and how one lone juror is enough to set Scott Blair free. Rachel also makes a request to Hannah on air. Rachel says that she knows someone has been trying to get her attention and that she wants to talk to her. However, Hannah cryptically follows that up with a note saying that it’s better if they don’t meet yet, so Rachel will have “plausible deniability” (she doesn’t specify for what). Hannah does confirm that she’s in Neapolis though. She writes more about her childhood. She recalls her mother being sick, them being poor and a social worker coming to check on them.
Harris Wilson is the first witness, who explains how Scott asked him to get Kelly to the playground near his house. He explains that Scott had been sure Kelly would have sex with him. Harris had been worried because Scott normally doesn’t drink due to his training, but that night be was plastered which could make him unpredictable. Afterwards, Quinn questions Harris and tears his credibility apart. Dwaine Richards, Scott’s former roommate, is up next, and he testifies about their sex competition.
Afterwards, Rachel gets in touch with Hannah’s foster mother, Kitty, who doesn’t know where Hannah is, but gives her a number to reach her. The phone call causes Rachel to miss the nurse’s testimony on the rape kit, and she finds another letter from Hannah. In it, Hannah talks about how her mother had finally prodded Jenny into going outside again, and Hannah and Jenny had gone to the beach. At the beach, Jenny hangs out with a dark-haired boy there that Jenny seemed to like. However, the boys from the other day show up. They tell the dark-haired boy something about Jenny, and he doesn’t look at Jenny the same way after.
Chapters 29 – 33
Rachel goes to the hospital to talk to the nurse, Tracey Rice, to learn more about rape kits, so she can talk about it on the podcast. Nurse Rice explains how the lengthy process works and how invasive and demeaning the process of collecting evidence can be. (Later, on the podcast, Rachel talks about how victims essentially are re-traumatized by the process.) Afterwards, Rachel asks if the nurse knows anyone who has been at the hospital a long time (to ask about Jenny Stills), and she suggests going down to the morgue.
To Rachel’s surprise, the man down there remembers Jenny. He says that he thought there should’ve been a police investigation into it as a homicide based on the bruising on her body that was clearly not from hitting rocks. He shows Rachel photos that he saved. He had even reached out to Jenny’s mother to tell her to request an inquest, but the mother had passed away not long after. The man suspects that the medical examiner didn’t pursue it for political reasons. He also mentions there was a car accident the same night Jenny died and two teen boys died.
The next day, the forensic expert, Dr. Wendy North, takes the stand to talk about the physical evidence. She also comments on the bruising and how it suggests that there was non-consensual force involved. (Afterwards, Rachel shows Dr. North the photos of Jenny, and she draws the same conclusion. Dr. North is horrified to hear there was never any police investigation for that victim.) Christine Moore, Kelly’s mother, takes the stand next. She talks about how they’d contacted the police to search for Kelly, but she came home eventually. The eventually were able to take her to get her rape kit done.
Rachel goes to visit the house where Jenny used to live and a couple there tells her that it’s now become a complex, Sea Breeze Villas. The developer was Simon Blair, the grandfather of Scott Blair. When Rachel expresses interest in the Jenny Stills case, they mention that she should go talk to Mitchell Alkins, who once went to school with Jenny and was rumored to have had a crush on her.
In another letter, Hannah writes about how Jenny was finally starting to feel better, but then the boy with dark hair Jenny had hung out with showed up at their house with flowers. He asked Jenny out for pizza. When she came back, Jenny had been crying. Later, Bobby came around again, and Hannah made the mistake of telling him that Jenny had a job somewhere.
Chapters 34 – 36
Next, Kelly’s therapist, Dr. Katrina Lawrence, takes the stand to talk about what a well-adjusted girl she was before the attack. In the courtroom, Rachel approaches Mitchell and mentions Jenny Stills, but he freezes and then walks away without a word.
Later, Rachel tracks down the florist where the flowers at Jenny’s grave site had come from. Renata, the woman working there, remembers Jenny sympathetically. She couldn’t believe Jenny had drowned because Jenny was always such a strong swimmer. Renata remembers how after Jenny died, her name had become synonymous with being a slut. Even before the rumors started, everyone in town knew how Jenny and her sister came from two different dads and that was enough for Jenny’s mother, Hope Stills, to be considered a slut. After Jenny died, there was a girl that had been friend with Jenny that was bullied until she left town completely. Renata feel guilty for not standing up for that girl. Renata also looks up their flower deliveries and finds that there have been multiple orders for a bouquet to be delivered to Jenny’s grave with the same message on the card each time, “Forgive Me”. There’s going to be another delivery the next morning.
Rachel then goes to find Rich from the gas station at the old folks’ home. The nurse mentions that he has lung cancer. Rich reluctantly admits that he knew Jenny and Hannah. Hannah had come in covered in blood, so he had called the ambulance and driven her to the jetty. When the police showed up, he left. He’d seen a boy there too, but Rick refuses to say who it was. As she leaves, Rachel notices that the home is owned by Blair Developments.
Chapters 37 – 40
On the podcast, Rachel talks about Kelly’s upcoming testimony for the case. She discusses how the victims have to testify to get justice, but the perpetrators do not because technically it’s the prosecution’s burden to prove the case. The next morning, Rachel goes to the grave site and sees the courier drop off the flowers. Then, she sees Mitch Alkins come by to place the flowers on the grave. She realizes that today must be the anniversary of Jenny’s death.
She heads to court afterwards, where Kelly is testifying. Kelly explains how, after getting pizza, she and Scott had been kissing on the beach. She didn’t want to take it further, but Scott forced her. Then, he took a picture of her partially nude and posted it online, with a caption that rated her a “C minus”. Afterwards, she felt very tired and suspected that Scott had slipped something in her drink. She woke up to Scott ordering her to wash up in the outdoor shower on the beach. He also threatened to do it again and bring friends if she told anyone. In the podcast, Rachel talks about the testimony and describes the brutal cross examination. Upset, Kelly ends up stepping down from the witness box, and it’s not clear if she will return.
Chapters 41 – 46
In the meantime, the judge decides to take the unorthodox measure of continuing on with the trial and resuming Kelly’s testimony later when she’s ready. The defense presents their first witness, which is Pastor Mark Fleming. He testifies about Scott’s good character. Then, Scott’s old coach, Tom Tarant, is called. He says what a great kid Scott was, but Mitch gets him to admit that Scott had been involved in an incident of hazing that resulted in the other boy leaving the school.
The next witness surprises Rachel. It’s the man who yelled at her at the jetty. His face is disfigured with scars, giving him a frightening appearance. He’s identified as Vince Knox. He’s a vagrant who tells a story about seeing Scott rescue a drowning boy. Afterwards, Rachel sees Vince arguing with a man with gray hair who appears to be with the Blair team, possibly as security detail. Pete runs a background check on Vince and learns that Vince Knox died in prison four years ago. They determine that this man must have taken on Vince’s name for some reason. Rachel goes to see “Vince”, suspecting that he knows more than he’s saying. “Vince” admits that Greg told him to testify or else Greg would remind people of something from “Vince’s” past.
On her podcast, Rachel talks about how the defense has presented a forensic expert that basically contradicts everything the prosecution’s expert has said. Rachel thinks the whole case hinges on Kelly coming back to finish testifying. The next day is Saturday, and Mitch is finally ready to talk about Jenny. He admits that he knew her (he’s the brown-haired boy from the beach) and that he hurt her by asking her out, but only being interested in sex. He didn’t force her, but he knows that he broke Jenny’s spirit with his attitude towards her. Mitch also asks Rachel to talk to the Moores. They are reluctant to subject Kelly to more questioning, but Mitch is certain they will lose the case if she doesn’t finish testifying.
Hannah continues recounting her story, piece by piece to Rachel. She recalls going to the movie theater with Jenny and Jenny getting into an argument with a girl who called her a slut. One day, as Hannah and Jenny walk home from the bus stop, Jenny gets abducted by the boys with the pickup truck. Hannah sees that they are assaulting her and runs to throw a rock at one of the boys, but Bobby grabs her and tells her to hide for her own safety. When Hannah gets away, she runs to a phone booth to call the police, but one of the boy spots her and stops her.
Chapters 47 – 50
Rachel talks to Dan and Christine Moore to tell them that Scott will go free without Kelly’s testimony. They believe her, but Christine thinks the psychological trauma from it will be too great that Kelly shouldn’t go forward with it. Christine says they she plans to move away from here. Dan grew up here and wanted to come back despite his bad childhood. Dan’s father was the police chief, but he was also abusive and it resulted in Dan’s mother killing herself. Christine is determined to leave with Kelly. Dan and Christine decide not to have Kelly testify.
Rachel can’t shake the feeling that she’s missing something. Then, she realizes that there’s a similarity in the two stories she’s been pursuing. In both, she thinks of Bobby wrapping Hannah up in her shirt and Kelly mentioning something very similar. She had watched “Vince” do the same thing with an injured seagull earlier. Rachel hurries out to see “Vince”. She guesses his real name is Bobby Green, which he finally confirms. Bobby went to jail for driving a pickup that got into an accident which killed two teen boys (the day Jenny died). It caught on fire which is how he was injured and disfigured. “Vince” is recalled to the witness stand the next day and explains that the real Vince is a guy he met in prison who died. Bobby took on his name. On the stand, he admits that he heard Kelly being attacked and found her.
Chapters 51 – 52
Hannah gives an update on her story to Rachel, saying that Rick saw Jenny’s killer. Hannah went to see him that morning and he admitted it since he only has a few weeks left to live and there’s nothing they can do to him now. Hannah then recalls how after the boys found her, one of them threatened to rape her, too. He made fun of Bobby for not joining in on the action with Jenny. Bobby attacks the boy who was threatening Hannah, but it resulted in Bobby getting burned in the bonfire.
The boys leave to take Bobby to the hospital. Jenny is hurt and needs an ambulance. She sends Hannah to the gas station to get help. Hannah shows up at Rick’s bloodied and injured. She calls 911 and then he drives her back to the beach to wait for the ambulance. However, when they get there, Jenny is not on the beach, but drowning in the water.
Hannah also says she’s ready to meet. That night, Rachel finally meets Hannah at the jetty. Hannah tells Rachel that she’s going to try to get a confession from the killer tonight. It’s Dan Moore. On the jetty, Hannah screams at Dan to get a confession out of him.
He admits that after they left Jenny, they returned and he tossed her into the water. Dan was worried she’d tell on them about the rape or about Bobby death (in case Bobby didn’t make it). After they left, Dan was driving as the boys argued about what to do about Bobby. As they argue, Dan gets into an accident and his friends (Aaron and Lucas) die. Dan calls his dad.Dan’s father, the police chief, showed up and placed Bobby in the driver’s seat. He then told Dan to lie and say the two of them (Dan and his father) were together all night. Somehow, Bobby survived, but was sent to jail for the accident.
After the confession, Dan demands Rachel’s phone (where she has recorded it), and tosses it into the water. He then makes a getaway. Later, at the hospital, Detective Cooper informs them than Dan is now on the run.
The jury finds Scott guilt of one count of sexual assault and two counts of sexual battery. (He’s not found guilty of rape because the jury found that it didn’t meet the legal definition of rape.) Mitch thinks Scott will get eight to ten years, but it’s likely Scott’s family will appeal the decision.
Dan Moore’s body is also found the morning after the decision is release. It’s clear he decided to kill himself.
The book ends with Rachel driving off, and Pete informing her that he’s found a case for Season 4. She takes a nightingale that’s been in her hotel lobby with her. (Throughout the book, there’s been an unhappy nightingale that doesn’t sing and random tourists come up and scream at it or bother it to sing, so she rescues it from the hotel as she leaves.)