45 pages 1 hour read

Leila Mottley


Fiction | Novel | Adult | Published in 2022

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Summary and Study Guide



Leila Mottley’s Nightcrawling (2022), a novel based on a sex-trafficking scandal involving the Oakland, California, police department in the 2010s, imagines the untold story of the female survivors thorough the eyes of 17-year-old Kiara Johnson. Struggling to support herself, her brother, and her nine-year-old neighbor, Kiara turns to sex work, then becomes the key witness in a grand-jury trial when a whistleblower reveals the police’s sex ring. The novel addresses themes of racial and economic injustice and the challenges of familial loyalty as it explores dynamics of gender, power, and autonomy.

Mottley began writing Nightcrawling at age 17. In the book’s Author’s Note, she explains that long after the story was no longer news, she continued to wonder about the lives of the survivors, “contemplating what it means to be vulnerable, unprotected, and unseen” (273). Mottley was named a New York Times Writer to Watch as the book immediately received numerous accolades, including the California Book Award (2023). Nightcrawling was a New York Times bestseller. It was named a Best Book of the Year by the New Yorkerthe Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, the San Francisco Chronicle, and TIME. It was an Oprah Winfrey Book Club selection in 2022, and was longlisted for the 2022 International Booker Prize.

This guide references the 2022 hardcover published by Knopf.

Content Warning: This guide includes references to sexual abuse, sex trafficking, rape, violence, racism, addiction, police brutality, child abuse and neglect, and suicide.

Plot Summary

Kiara Johnson is a Black 17-year-old living in Oakland, California. She and her older brother, Marcus, are barely bringing in enough money to pay the rent on their apartment. Their father’s death and their mother’s incarceration have left them to fend for themselves. With a rent increase looming, Kiara pleads with Marcus to search for employment, having previously agreed to allow him to focus on his passion—recording music in hopes of becoming a successful rap artist. Marcus refuses to get a job, spending his days at the recording studio owned by his friend Cole. Kiara has been able to secure occasional shifts at a liquor store and gets by with the help of a friend, Alé, who sneaks Kiara food from her family’s restaurant. Together, they crash local funeral visitations, helping themselves to buffet food and lifting the clothes of mourners.

Kiara has taken it upon herself to care for Trevor, the nine-year-old boy who lives next door, whose mother has a substance-use disorder and is often absent. Kiara spends her days walking from business to business in search of employment, to no avail. She stops into a gentlemen’s club where a former girlfriend of Marcus’s, Lacy, bartends. The club will not hire Kiara because she is a minor, but Lacy gives Kiara free drinks. Before long, Kiara is intoxicated, and as she leaves the club she is propositioned by a man who had been sitting near her at the bar. He takes her to a rooftop and they have sex; then the man gives her $200. Stunned at how quickly she was able to earn a significant sum of money, Kiara decides to pursue sex work.

On her first few nights on the street, Kiara meets an older sex worker named Camila who discourages Kiara from working alone and advises her to find a man to protect her. Kiara asks Tony, a friend of Marcus’s, to take on this role, and he reluctantly agrees. Tony, who wishes to date Kiara, soon cannot deny his disapproval of the sex work and refuses to help Kiara any longer. Marcus gets a job at the gentlemen’s club through his connection to Lacy but quits soon after.

Frustrated, Kiara phones her mother (Mama), who is living at a halfway house. She wants Mama to put her in touch with Uncle Ty, Kiara and Marcus’s paternal uncle, who moved from Oakland to Los Angeles after his own musical career took off. Mama agrees to give Kiara the phone number if Kiara visits her. Kiara does so, but her mother is of no help; Kiara doubts that she even knows how to get in touch with Uncle Ty. Kiara thinks about her parents’ courtship—her father was a member of the Black Panther Party—and about the incident that led to Mama’s incarceration: Kiara’s toddler sister, Soraya, drowned in the apartment pool while in Mama’s care, after which Mama attempted suicide.

Back home, Kiara continues sex work, but is caught by police. The officers threaten to arrest her, but offer her a deal—she can avoid legal repercussions if she agrees to attend “parties” where she will be paid to allow officers to have sex with her. Feeling she has no choice, Kiara agrees. In the months that follow, she makes enough money from these “parties” to pay the rent and to feed and care for Trevor, but she grows increasingly traumatized by the abuse she suffers. She learns from Cole’s girlfriend, Shauna, that Marcus and Cole and their friends have begun selling drugs. As Marcus continues to provide no assistance in covering the rent and other bills, Kiara forces him to move out.

She continues to be “on call” for the police, but runs into Camila again, who urges her to attend a party at the home of a man named Desmond, whom Camila insists will be willing to “manage” Kiara’s sex work. Kiara attends the party, meets Desmond, and then is warned by a phone call that undercover police are present at the party for a sting operation. The caller instructs Kiara to get in a car that has been sent to pick her up. Kiara recognizes the police officer who picks her up as one of those present at the police parties. He asks Kiara to go home with him, where they have sex. He refuses to pay her unless she spends the night with him, and she reluctantly agrees.

On her 18th birthday, Kiara and Trevor bake a cake and plan a day of fun—swimming and playing basketball. Two police officers appear at the swimming pool and ask Kiara to accompany them to the police station for questioning. The officer with whom Kiara spent the night has died by suicide and left a note revealing the details of the police sex ring, including Kiara’s assumed name. Kiara does not learn these details, however, until after she is released and an undercover police officer, Sandra, approaches her in secret, explaining that she is going to make the details of the sex-trafficking parties public. She asks Kiara if she wants her to reveal her name, and Kiara orders her not to.

When news of the scandal breaks, Kiara’s name is not included, though she grows increasingly paranoid and fearful for her safety. She tells both Alé and Marcus that she is the unnamed woman in the report; Alé becomes distant, upset by what she views as Kiara’s willing involvement in the parties. Before too long, Kiara’s pseudonym is made known. Things become worse when Marcus and Cole are arrested for drug possession. Kiara barters with Sandra, who agrees to provide Kiara with Uncle Ty’s contact information if Kiara will speak with an attorney.

Uncle Ty arrives from Los Angeles and visits Marcus in jail, but is unwilling to provide much help. He immediately returns to LA, leaving Kiara to continue to worry how she will support herself and Trevor, now that she can no longer engage in sex work, fearful that police will retaliate. She eventually phones the attorney, Marsha Fields, whose information was given to her by Sandra. In the weeks that follow, Marsha prepares Kiara for the impending grand jury trial, which will determine whether there is enough evidence for police officers to be indicted on charges of sex trafficking. Kiara is adamant that Marsha must help Marcus get released from jail, and Marsha agrees to see what might be done.

Meanwhile, Trevor is severely beaten by several kids on the basketball courts. Though Marsha provides them with food, Kiara is worried that word will get out about Trevor’s injuries and he’ll be taken into Child Protective Services custody. Indeed, this eventually happens when the landlord, Vernon, learns that Trevor’s mother is no longer present to care for him. Alé remains distant, and Kiara, desperate for support, agrees to visit Mama, who has recently been released from the halfway house and is living with a friend. Though Mama cannot offer much assistance to Kiara, the two share a meaningful moment when Mama encourages Kiara to express her frustration by screaming out loud.

The grand-jury trial begins, and Kiara testifies. The judge grills Kiara, twisting the facts to suggest that Kiara voluntarily participated in the sex parties. Kiara insists that she was forced. After her testimony, she returns home, and Alé arrives soon after, offering an apology. The two share a physically intimate moment; then Marsha phones to tell Kiara that the grand jury has ruled against indicting the police officers.

The novel ends when Trevor unexpectedly returns, having sneaked away from foster care to retrieve his basketball. Though Kiara knows he must return to foster care, the two take one last swim together, relishing each other’s company.