Celebrated author Lois Duncan, best known for such popular suspense novels for young adults as Killing Mr. Griffin and I Know What You Did Last Summer, died at her Florida home on June 15. She was 82.
Duncan was born Lois Duncan Steinmetz on April 28, 1934 in Philadelphia to Joseph and Lois Steinmetz, both successful photographers whose work appeared in such publications as Life and The Saturday Evening Post. The family moved to Sarasota when Duncan was a small child, and she grew up in the Sunshine State.
Her parents, well established in their own creative field, were a supportive influence on Duncan, who has said she felt a passion for writing early on. In one of the biographical essays she penned for Contemporary Authors over the years, she remarked: “I can’t remember a time when I didn't want to be a writer. It’s the only thing I ever wanted to be.”
Duncan followed that writing spark and began submitting stories to magazines when she was still in elementary school, and by age 13 she had her first story published in the magazine Calling All Girls. She has said that this initial success cemented her path forward. “I wrote what I knew about, and could hardly wait to rush home from school each day to fling myself at the typewriter.” As a senior in high school, she won Seventeen magazine’s annual short-story contest.
After attending Duke University for a year beginning in 1952, an experience Duncan did not enjoy, she left her studies to get married. While her husband served in the Air Force, Duncan was home with small children and continued her magazine writing, as well as turning her hand to novel-length manuscripts. She entered her YA project Debutante Hill in Dodd, Mead & Company’s Seventeenth Summer Literary Contest and earned the grand prize: $1000 and a book contract. That first title was officially published in 1958. (A reissue of Debutante Hill and a new collection of Duncan’s early magazine writings, Written in the Stars, were published by Lizzie Skurnick Books in 2013 and 2014, respectively.)
She published several YA novels in quick succession, including Love Song for Joyce (Funk and Wagnalls, 1958) and A Promise for Joyce (Funk and Wagnalls, 1959), both under the pseudonym Lois Kerry. Duncan relocated to Albuquerque, N.M. in 1962 with her children after her first marriage ended in divorce. In addition to writing books, she worked on freelance magazine articles and also began teaching in the journalism department at the University of New Mexico. When she married Don Arquette in 1965, Duncan said in her biographical writings that she felt freer to concentrate more effort on writing YA novels, which wasn’t a particularly lucrative pursuit at the time.
Beginning with the publication of Ransom (Doubleday), in 1966, Duncan’s books for teens, though rooted in real-life settings, took on a more suspenseful and sometimes supernatural tone. Ransom was a finalist for the Edgar Award in 1967. Continuing in this vein, she became lauded by critics as a master of the teen suspense genre. She published prolifically throughout the 1970s, creating such works as I Know What You Did Last Summer (Little, Brown, 1973), which spawned a feature film franchise in the 1990s; and Killing Mr. Griffin (Little, Brown, 1978), which was a NBC TV movie in 1997.
Duncan also wrote works for younger readers, including Silly Mother, illus. by Suzanne K. Larsen (Dial, 1962), The Circus Comes Home: When the Greatest Show on Earth Rose the Rails (Delacorte, 1993) featuring photographs by her father, and Hotel for Dogs, illus. by Leonard Shortall (Houghton Mifflin, 1971). When Hotel for Dogs was adapted as a feature film in 2009, Duncan continued the Dogs series with two sequels, News for Dogs (Scholastic, 2009) and Movie for Dogs (Scholastic, 2010).
In addition to her fiction for children and teens, Duncan edited short-story collections, and wrote books for adults as well as nonfiction. One of her best-known nonfiction titles focuses on a family tragedy. In Who Killed My Daughter?: The True Story of a Mother’s Search for her Daughter’s Murderer (Delacorte, 1992), Duncan wrote about her family’s experiences following the murder of her youngest daughter, Kaitlyn, in 1989. The circumstances of Kaitlin’s horrific death eerily echoed plot elements of Duncan’s Don’t Look Behind You (Delacorte, 1989), which was released just one month prior to the real-life crime. No one was charged with the murder and Duncan relentlessly searched for her daughter’s killer ever since, with the as-yet-unsolved case featured on true-crime TV shows and in books and articles over the years. Duncan and her husband created and maintain the website realcrimes.com to help other families in similar situations. In 2013, Duncan published an e-book sequel to Who Killed My Daughter? called One to the Wolves: On the Trail of a Killer, which contains new information from her investigation efforts. At that time, she told an interviewer from the Hartford Books Examiner, “I’m no longer writing new books. My efforts are centered upon helping other families of homicide victims.”
In all, Duncan created more than 50 books, and in addition to numerous accolades that include the 1992 Margaret A. Edwards Award, which recognizes an author’s outstanding contribution to young adult literature, she was awarded the 2015 Grand Master Award by the Mystery Writers of America.
John G. Keller, longtime v-p and publisher of children’s books at Little, Brown, who retired in 2002, offered this remembrance of the author. “I think one of the best memories I keep from my time as an editor and publisher was the evening I took I Know What You Did Last Summer home for a first read,” he wrote in an email to PW. “I hadn’t worked with Lois before and to put it mildly I was riveted. Lois’s use of concept, which was daring for its time and her ability to make characters jump off the page, was in full bloom. Then next came Killing Mr. Griffin and because of her skill I became a fan as well as an editor – doubly so because when we met I found she was a fascinating woman who enlivened every conversation we had. Her daughter’s tragic death left an indelible mark on Lois’s life but she continued to be a writer of the first rank. I was saddened to hear of her death; her novels, I believe, will continue to be read and shivered over by young people for years to come.”
Lizzie Skurnick, editor-in-chief of Lizzie Skurnick Books, who worked with Duncan on two more recent projects, said, “She was strong-willed, with wonderful contradictions: a writer of literary thrillers; modest about her fame but a fierce advocate for her work; a moral and deeply emotional forensic investigator. Her sentences were elegant and her stories masterworks, and the same can be said for her.”
Beverly Horowitz, senior v-p and publisher of Delacorte Press, who knew Duncan for many years and oversaw the paperback publication of many of her books, paid tribute to Duncan’s lasting impact on the publishing industry. “Lois Duncan’s thriller suspense novels led the charge for expanding the YA market, not only in terms of the honesty of her portrayals of teen characters, but also in terms of opening up YA retail accounts," she said. “Booksellers came to acknowledge the power of the teen reader. Librarians knew teens loved her books. At the time they were published, Lois’s I Know What You Did Last Summer and Killing Mr. Griffin were super bestsellers as Dell Laurel-Leaf paperbacks. Teenagers were wandering malls and open-front bookstores just as Waldenbooks and B. Dalton Bookseller began to carry paperbacks front of store. Young shoppers realized there were entertaining and easy-to-carry books just for them. When I Know What You Did Last Summer became a major motion picture release, Lois was widely recognized as being before her time, and the teen subject was a huge success."
Horowitz added, "Lois Duncan was the ultimate professional writer. She influenced a generation not only of readers but also of writers. She was a superstar and will be remembered for paving the way.”
Duncan is survived by her husband and four children, as well as several grandchildren.