Nobody did suspense better than Lois Duncan.
Throughout my childhood, her paperbacks were always in drugstores, libraries, and bookstores. The covers usually had a beautiful girl scared about something. She had the seventies parted hair, beautiful complexion. Duncan hated it when her books were called horror. She preferred the term suspense. No matter what you called it, they were great books. But a real life mystery engulfed Duncan’s life, a mystery that to this day hasn’t been solved.
Duncan started writing young. She wrote short stories, some of them were published. At age twenty-four she published her first novel, Debutante Hill, which dealt with a girl feeling left out when all her friends become debutantes while her parents decide not to let her come out. She then published picture books, books for adults, and children’s books. But she became known for her suspense books. The heroines were never victims. Rather they were the ones that figured out whatever sinister thing was going on, got herself out of danger, then tried to do the right thing. Yet there was one girl she couldn’t write a happy ending for in real life.
On July 16, 1989 Duncan’s daughter Kait visited her parents at their home in New Mexico. Kait was the youngest of the family that included children of Duncan’s from another marriage. Kait confided to them that she was going to break up with her boyfriend Dung Nguyen. She was going to visit a new friend, and asked her parents not to tell Nguyen where she was. They said yes. Duncan would later write that if she could’ve rewritten what happened next, she would’ve told Kait to not go away, to stay at home where it was safe. However, she couldn’t rewrite what happened next.
After visiting her friend, Kait got in her car and drove towards her parents’ house. She never got there. A police officer driving by noticed a possible accident. He looked inside. Kait was covered in blood. She had two bullet holes in her head.
From here it gets murky. While police officers said they stayed with Kait until the rescue team arrived, the rescue team that arrived on the scene said the police officer claiming this wasn’t there. Another police officer claimed she was directing traffic. Again, the rescue team said there wasn’t anyone directing traffic. The police would later differ from several eyewitness accounts on what happened. But nothing could change that Kait later died on July 17th with her family at her side. There was a double rainbow on the day Kait died. On the day Kait was born, Duncan saw a double rainbow. Her daughter came full circle.
The police also said they found a note where Kait made up with Nguyen so he wasn’t a suspect. However, a handwriting expert said the handwriting didn’t match Kait’s. Then Nguyen left town and changed his name.
So much of it is hard to understand. Part of it was so many mistakes were made during the investigation. Another part of it was it didn’t make sense. Kait Arquette didn’t have any enemies. Who would want to kill her? Duncan tried to make sense of it. She hired private detectives, talked to psychics. Wrote a best-selling book, Who Killed My Daughter? The case became cold.
Duncan and her husband left New Mexico. She critiqued the Albuquerque police department constantly through the years, especially in a Buzzfeed article where she called them “incompetent.” Major Anthony Montano alleged that it was Duncan who bungled the case, saying “…when she puts out stuff that’s not factual, it’s not helping the case.” When asked if any cover-ups happened, he said “To my knowledge it was (investigated) I can’t say for certain.” Personally, I cannot understand a police officer saying that about a mother who lost her child. Nor can I understand if he’s doubtful if there was a cover up or not.
Duncan knew she could never again write again about a young woman in peril. Instead she turned her attention writing picture books, poetry, and another book about Kait’s case, One to the Wolves. Debutante Hill was rereleased in 2013 by Lizzie Skurnick books, followed a year later with Written in the Stars, a collection of short stories. Another novel The Middle Sister will be published in August. I was reading Debutante Hill when the 2013 government shutdown happened. Noticing the similarities between Duncan’s story and what was happening in DC, I wrote how Lynn’s parents were on to something: how no one should be treated differently because of where they came from. I shared it on Duncan’s Facebook page. She wrote me a lovely note, saying “Way to go!” It’s one of the best compliments I ever received.
Duncan had two strokes she recovered from, but had been in poor health the past several months. Yet she still had hope that Kait’s murder would be solved. Today her husband found her in the kitchen. She was gone. Hundreds of condolences were left on Duncan’s page. I felt sad of course, but incredibly angry. It was unfair. So damned unfair. Why did she have to die not knowing what happened? After everything she’d been through, why couldn’t she have the knowledge of knowing what happened?
I don’t know. Here’s what I’m hoping for: Lois Duncan found another double rainbow. She walked to the end of it. There she saw Kait. Enveloping her in a hug, Duncan said this to her youngest child: Oh my darling girl. I found my pot of gold.