Every Secret Thing Summary

Laura Lippman

Every Secret Thing

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Every Secret Thing Summary

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Every Secret Thing is a 2003 novel by celebrated mystery writer Laura Lippman. Known for her Tess Monaghan book series, Lippman presents a stand-alone mystery about the fate of two young girls in Baltimore.

The novel opens with Alice Manning and Ronnie Fuller, two fifth-graders on their way home from a birthday party. Ronnie, the “bad girl,” has gotten herself and “good girl” Alice thrown out of the party for arguing over a gift. As they walk home, wet and barefoot, they come across a nine-month-old baby, Olivia, seemingly abandoned in a baby carriage in front of a home. Ronnie insists that the baby is abandoned and they have to take care of it.

Next, the novel flashes forward seven years, and Alice and Ronnie are being released from separate juvenile detention facilities. We discover that baby Olivia died that summer after four days with the girls, though the details of the kidnapping and murder were never released and which girl was the mastermind remains a mystery. They are encouraged to start fresh, and not interact with one another. Meanwhile, Olivia’s mother, Cynthia Barnes, is upset that the girls are freed and beginning new lives.

Soon after the girls are released, kids start disappearing. At first they are only gone for a few moments until one is kidnapped in similar circumstances to that abduction seven years ago. The young child, Brittany, is kidnapped in a shopping center parking lot while her mother is turned away. As the narrative unfolds, it investigates both the current and long-ago crime, uncovering the true criminal then and now.

The novel reveals more and more of the girls’ backstories: how Alice’s mother Helen got pregnant at a young age, and Alice’s father died before she was born. How Ronnie was molested by her brother as a child, and lashed out, becoming unpredictable, “bad.” In detention her erratic behavior materialized as cutting and she felt at home in psychiatric facilities. It addresses how racial tension played a role in the media narrative—with two white girls responsible for a black girl’s death, one lawmaker wanting it to be labeled a hate crime.

Nancy Porter, who gained notoriety as the young cadet who’d discovered Olivia’s body those years ago, is put on the case to discover the perpetrator. She and her colleagues discover a shirt with blood on it that doesn’t match the child or her mother. Cynthia Barnes, upon hearing of the abduction, immediately calls Nancy and voices her suspicion. After all, she says, the girls who are responsible for her daughter’s death are free just as this string of abductions occurs. Nancy agrees to interview the girls and finds Alice fairly compliant, while Ronnie runs and hides in the same cabin where she had hid Olivia seven years ago. Nancy’s partner says of Ronnie: ‘She’s like a textbook example of guilt.’

Meanwhile, Cynthia’s husband encourages her to reach out to the mother of the missing girl, but she is torn between her desire to bring justice upon the young girls and her own discomfort with the social status of the kidnapped child. Herself the middle-class daughter of one of Baltimore’s more prominent African American judges, she feels uncomfortable communicating with the child’s lower class, mixed-race family. She feels that the mother appears “sloppy” in contrast to her stoic presence after her child’s abduction, and feels that they have nothing other than the crimes in common. Still, she feels compelled to make a visit, in part because her daughter, Rosalind, conceived in the wake of her grief over Olivia, bears such a striking resemblance to the abducted girl.

A reporter, Mira Jenkins, happens to be visiting the same house in order to get a statement from the mother and sees Cynthia leaving the home. Chasing the story, she goes to interview Cynthia, who gives up Alice’s and Ronnie’s names (they were sealed as part of the earlier case’s resolution), and implies that they are being questioned in this case as well.

After a lot of pushback, Nancy is finally given access to Alice and Ronnie’s medical records, and discovers that Alice had a child while in detention. Her child would be three, the same age as the abducted toddler.

Through Alice’s mothers memories, it is revealed that Ronnie admitted to her that she killed Olivia that night seven years ago at a very particular time, because Alice had persuaded her to do it. To kill her while Alice pleaded with her mother to read to her in bed. So that she would have an alibi.

Armed with this memory and her raising suspicions, Ronnie goes to find Alice and confront her. While discussing the past, the police catch up to them and capture Alice, while she tries to convince them to pursue Ronnie, on whom she’s trying yet again to place the blame.

Back at the police station, Alice insists that Brittany is her baby, just as Nancy had suspected. Alice eventually confesses her crimes, but continues to insist that the baby is her biological daughter. She says that her baby’s father helped her, and it is his blood that is on the shirt found at the crime scene.

The man’s house is located and the baby recovered and reunited with her mother. Still, Ronnie is absorbed in memories of that day seven years ago: of Alice’s manipulations, and her assurances that no one would know, that they didn’t want their sick crying baby back. As her memories and guilt surround her, she is unable to continue and commits suicide.

Alice’s continued conniving and legal team manage to get her nothing more than probation, but the novel ends with Cynthia at peace with her past.

A mystery novel touching on issues of race and class in Baltimore, Every Secret Thing is a character-driven thriller that Kirkus characterized as “A chilling study of mothers, daughters, love, and murder.”