YA literature pioneer Lois Duncan died June 15 at her home in Florida. Her suspense novels, including the bestsellers I Know What You Did Last Summer and Killing Mr. Griffin, gave generations of teen readers their first taste of tightly plotted mysteries written specially for them.
I was one of them. I met Lois Duncan in the pages of Scholastic’s book order form around 1969 when I was in the 6th grade. They Never Came Home had come out in 1968, and it sounded like it would be right up my alley. Two friends disappear from a weekend camping trip, leaving their families frantic with worry and ultimately with grief as months pass with no news of their whereabouts. After the sister of one of the missing boys receives a disturbing phone call from a stranger, she sets out to discover what happened to her brother, even if it means her own life is placed in jeopardy.
To a reader brought up on the Hardy Boys and Nancy Drew and newly discovering classic adult mysteries like Agatha Christie’s, Lois Duncan brought something new and exciting – contemporary mysteries that delved into issues faced by real teens, stories that weren’t afraid to go dark places and doing it in ways that showed respect for the intelligence of her audience. I loved They Never Came Home and read it over and over.
A few years ago, I heard Lois Duncan speak at NCTE, one of the highlights of the conference. She spoke about how she began writing for children and teens but also about the tragic turn her own life had taken with the unsolved murder of her daughter Kaitlyn in 1989. She had written Who Killed My Daughter?: The True Story of a Mother’s Search for her Daughter’s Murderer. The circumstances of Kaitlyn’s death were strangely similar to a novel Duncan had just published, Don’t Look Behind You. Duncan described her own investigation into the murder and her theory about what had happened and why no one had been charged in the crime. She found the strength to go on after this horror by becoming an advocate for families of crime victims.
The continued popularity of Lois Duncan’s books into the 21st century is a testament to her innate understanding of human nature and her gift for creating believable characters teens will follow on their twisted, often frightening journeys.
– Anne McLeod