“A Tribute to Lois Duncan” (by Hilary Davidson)

Hilary Davidson is the author of the Anthony Award-winning Lily Moore mystery series, as well as the hardboiled standalone Blood Always Tells. Her short fiction has won several awards, including a Derringer from the Short Mystery Fiction Society.  Her story “The Siege,” from the December 2015 EQMM, is currently nominated for a 2016 Anthony Award, winners to be announced at the Bouchercon World Mystery Convention in New Orleans in September. The full text of the story (copyrighted by the author) is available for reading on EQMM’s Web site until after the convention.—Janet Hutchings

In fifth grade, I read my first Lois Duncan novel, and it changed my life. The book was called I Know What You Did Last Summer, and it told the story of a group of teenagers who accidentally killed a boy on a winding country road and made a pact to keep it a secret; a year later, when the book begins, someone has uncovered the truth and is taunting them with it. The premise of the story hooked me, but what stayed with me long after I devoured the book (in a single night, partly with the aid of a flashlight) was the idea that no secret ever truly stays buried. Duncan’s work was instantly addictive, and I followed that book with many more, including Ransom, Daughters of Eve, Killing Mr. Griffin, and Stranger With My Face.

I never imagined that I would meet this childhood hero of mine in the flesh, but I did last year at the Edgar Awards ceremony. I had the honor of introducing Lois Duncan when she received her Grand Master Award from the Mystery Writers of America. That happened at the last minute: her longtime agent was supposed to introduce her to the crowd in the Grand Hyatt’s ballroom, but he passed away two weeks before the ceremony. I was asked to step in because I’d spoken so passionately about Lois Duncan’s books when MWA’s national board discussed making her a Grand Master.

Writing that speech was a labor of love for me. It had been many years since I’d picked up a book by Lois Duncan, and I’d never had to explain to anyone about why, exactly, her books resonated so deeply with me. I’d never actually analyzed her work, either; my reactions had been purely emotional. Her writing struck a chord in me, and I’d never stopped to think about why.

Several things surprised me when I started researching her work. For starters, Lois Duncan was all of thirteen herself when she sold her first story to a magazine, and a mere eighteen when she published her debut novel, Debutante Hill. Another was that Duncan was one of the trailblazers—along with Judy Blume and S.E. Hinton—who created a new category of young-adult literature in the 1960s and 70s. That’s not to say that there weren’t books targeted at teens before then, but they tended to be formulaic and filled with predictable lessons to be learned. With her flawed characters, realistic points of view, and dark consequences, Lois Duncan blazed a path few had the nerve to explore. By the time I was in school, there was no shortage of suspense novels targeted at young adults, but Duncan’s books stood out. There was something boldly subversive in them, whether it was Daughters of Eve’s view of sexism and violence, Killing Mr. Griffin’s obsession with revenge, or Stranger With My Face’s horror-infused vision of unbreakable family ties. Whatever the subject, she made it feel real by grounding it in the raw vulnerability of teenagers’ lives. She understood the keen competition, the fear of ostracism, and the pressures coming from all sides. Her books stand up so well today because those things haven’t changed.

Writing that speech also brought Duncan’s life into focus. She was a mother of five, but in July 1989, her youngest daughter, Kaitlyn, died in a drive-by shooting. The killers have never been brought to justice. Her two nonfiction books dealing with the crime and its aftermath—1992’s Who Killed My Daughter? and 2013’s One to the Wolves—are painful, powerful, deeply personal accounts about the loss, her own courageous investigation into the crime, the cover-ups and corruption, and the danger her family faced in pursuing the truth. For the first time, I understood why she had suddenly stopped writing fiction; there had been, at a certain point, too much real-life darkness to contend with.

I know that some people are disappointed when they meet their childhood heroes, but meeting Lois Duncan was a dream come true. At the Edgars that night, she hugged me when she walked up on stage, and after the ceremony we chatted for a while. She was gracious and charming and funny, and it was clear that she deeply appreciated the Grand Master Award. (While she authored some fifty books, most hadn’t won awards, perhaps because they were ahead of their time.) The next day, we became Facebook friends (something my fifth-grade self could never have imagined, but she would’ve turned cartwheels over).

In the last months of her life, Lois Duncan’s health failed, but her good nature, kindness, and wit never did. She passed away on June 15th this year. On behalf of the countless readers whose lives she changed, I can’t thank her enough. While I’m saddened that she’s no longer in the world, I’m grateful that her books live on.

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2 Responses to “A Tribute to Lois Duncan” (by Hilary Davidson)

  1. Art Taylor says:

    Hi, Hilary — Such a lovely tribute here, both to Lois Duncan but also to how strongly books can impact us, both in those early years and all through out lives, of course. Thanks for writing this!

  2. lanamfox says:

    Thank you for this beautiful tribute to Lois Duncan. She was an extraordinary writer. I, too, devoured her books back in the 80’s when I was raising my family and dreaming of being an author some day. Lois knew how to get to the heart and soul of a story. I think we writers get too caught up in the mechanics of building a story and forget about the heart of the story. This is something Lois never did. I remember reading her essay about the death of her mother and crying along with her even though I didn’t know either one of them. I’m so glad you got to meet her and that she was just as warm and wonderful as you knew she would be.

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