Since the death of Lois Duncan last week at age 82, the accolades have been deservedly pouring in. Duncan was one of the authors—along with S. E. Hinton, Robert Newton Peck, and Judy Blume—who helped to launch the Young Adult genre. You could say Duncan wrote mystery or suspense, but those words would be too meek. Her novels circled around violence, terror, and revenge. She wrote many of her most popular—and scariest—books in the 1970s.
Ten years earlier, it was unusual to find youth books where murders were even mentioned. Duncan had no qualms about dealing with killings and death, and neither, as it turned out, did her readers. I was working in public libraries at the time, and Duncan’s books, including I Know What You Did Last Summer (1973), Killing Mr. Griffin (1978), and Daughters of Eve (1979), along with 1979’s crossover novel Flowers in the Attic, by V. C. Andrews, which dealt with abuse and incest, showed that young people, like their elders, had a taste for the dark side.
Then, in 1989, the dark side paid a visit to Duncan. It was a parent’s worst nightmare. Her 18-year-old daughter, Kaitlyn Arquette, was shot to death while driving in her home town of Albuquerque, New Mexico. Horrible to be sure. But then suspicions began to be raised that this was not simply a drive-by shooting.
Perhaps her boyfriend was involved. After all, he had stabbed himself in the stomach days later, which he said was because of his grief. Later, it became known that he was associated with dangerous people involved in insurance scams in Los Angeles. Then a note Kait had left for him the night of murder turned out not to be in her handwriting. Although other suspects began to surface, the police, who had at first seemed hell-bent on finding the murderer, became less interested. Duncan, finding it difficult to unspool these tangled threads, began her own investigation and also turned to psychics for answers.
That’s when the story became truly bizarre. One psychic she contacted gave her a picture of a possible suspect. It was almost identical to a character depicted on the cover of Duncan’s not-yet-released book, Don’t Look Behind You—the character of a hit man named Mike Vamp.
The twists continued. The police had recently arrested a man for Kait’s murder who was said to have been sitting in the passenger side of a Camaro, the same car that Mike drove in the book. Moreover, the suspect, Miguel Garcia, was known as Mike. A friend told police his nickname was Vamp.
Duncan published a nonfiction account of the ordeal in 1993 entitled Who Killed My Daughter. (See this Buzzfeed article for a detailed account of the murder and its aftermath.). In 2013, she wrote a follow-up, One for the Wolves, which further chronicled her experiences in the hunt for her daughter’s killers. She even wrote about her personal experiences for young people in 1995’s Psychic Connections: A Journey into the Mysterious World of Psi. For it, she teamed up with William Roll, the project director for the Psychical Research Foundation. The book detailed her family tragedy, as well as offering a comprehensive look at psychic phenomena.
Duncan didn’t want to be known as a “psychic addict,” she told BuzzFeed, and indeed, her later books were about dogs and myths rather than murders, mostly because she couldn’t bear to go down that road anymore. Yet for those who read—and still read—her books, the chilling scenarios often put them somewhere between this world and another world, a place where what is real and what is haunted become indistinguishable. A place Lois Duncan came to know all too well.