Lois Duncan, Author of I Know What You Did Last Summer

Lois Duncan

Lois Duncan (April 28, 1934 – June 15, 2016) published more than fifty books, beginning with romance novels for adults and ending with picture books for children—but her name is synonymous with the teen thrillers that have remained her best-known works.

Feature films based on her books, like Down a Dark Hall (2018) and I Know What You Did Last Summer (2021), have continued to sustain her readership.

Just as her thrillers took ordinary people and thrust them into dark places, her personal life was profoundly impacted by her teenage daughter’s murder. In 1992, Lois Duncan was back in the headlines some six years after her death, when charges were brought against the man who confessed to the 1989 murder of her youngest daughter.


Early life and the beginning of a writing career

Lois Duncan Steinmetz was born in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania on April 28, 1934, where she lived with her mother, also named Lois, and her father, Joseph. Theirs was a “loving, gentle home” as she describes it in Chapters: My Growth as a Writer. (Quotations are from this memoir unless otherwise stated.) 

After her brother Billy was born, the family resettled in Florida—a suitable location for her parents’ careers in photojournalism, where they worked for magazines like Life, Time, and Collier’s.

Lois loved spending time outdoors, playing in the woods or on the beaches, and although she enjoyed tormenting her brother, she enjoyed her own company too.

“I cannot remember a time when I did not consider myself a writer,” she said. By the time she was thirteen, she’d accumulated so many rejection slips that her mother forbade her from saving them. She wrote adventures and fairy tales: “What I couldn’t accomplish in real life, I could do on paper. All of my stories were written from a boy’s viewpoint.”

At her father’s urging, she showed a neighbor (who was a writer) a recent rejection from the Saturday Evening Post, and he advised her to write about what she knew instead. She began to transform her own experiences into fiction. The first story she wrote about an ordinary little girl, with braces on her teeth, earned her a twenty-five dollars. From then on, her own life informed her storytelling.

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Lois Duncan Steinmetz

Lois Duncan Steinmetz in her teens, photo by Joseph Steinmetz
courtesy of Wikimedia Commons
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Quintessentially bookish, Lois was the high school yearbook editor and the managing editor of the newspaper (the best position available for a girl—only a boy could be the editor-in-chief).

She continued to value her solitude: “I ran with a crowd and enjoyed many people in a surface way, but I have seemed to form those deep all-consuming friendships that most teenage girls make such an important part of their lives.” Even then, she was dedicated to her work.

Lois’s parents supported her creativity. Her father was a Princeton and her mother had attended Smith as one of the first class of exchange students to graduate in Paris. So, there was no question that Lois would continue her studies.

“Education was a tradition in our family, and I moved automatically from high school into the college of my choice,” Duncan writes. That was Duke University, in 1952. Although she enjoyed her English and History classes, dorm life didn’t suit her; there was no opportunity for the solitude that propelled her writing, and she craved something more.


Handsome husband, cute house – what’s missing?

Lois married Joseph “Buzz” Cardozo, a pre-law student, just a few days after her nineteenth birthday in 1952 and shortly before his graduation. For the next two years she was an air force wife, until her husband was discharged and continued to law school.

Partly from loneliness and uncertainty. Lois began working on her first novel for the Seventeenth Summer Literary Contest. Married life wasn’t what she had expected. But after she won the contest, she could call herself an author — her romance Debutante Hill was published in 1958.

Lois wasn’t content. “I had a handsome husband, a cute little house to fuss around in, all the trappings that went with the role of an adult woman. Why did I feel so empty and dissatisfied? Something was missing, but what was it? I settled upon the same answer as millions of other young women. I had a baby.”


Independent and ambitious

Lois and Buzz were married for nine years before he met someone else. In an interview with Roger Sutton, she describes how unthinkable this was. “I’d never known a divorced person my whole life.” Not only did this disrupt her identity, but the six books she’d published by then weren’t enough to support three children.

Lois moved to New Mexico to be near her brother, along with her three children (Robin, Kerry, and Brett). She found administrative work in an advertising agency. Full-time work and caregiving sapped her energy and she set aside her writing. However, she began to submit photographs to contests, which paid off.

Soon she was able to arrange for childcare, which afforded her time to write. “I taught myself kinds of writing I had never before attempted. I wrote for women’s magazines, confession magazines, newspapers, and religious publications; I wrote verse and advertising copy.’

Lois developed a pattern of beginning a confession story on a Monday and submitting it on a Wednesday. Most were published and Duncan’s confidence—and income—grew.

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I Know What You Did Last Summer, novel by Lois Duncan

I Know What You Did Last Summer (1973)
remains one of Lois Duncan’s best-known works
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Moving into new genres

Lois met her second husband Don Arquette through her brother, and they married in 1965. He urged her to set aside the confession stories and consider submitting work to the top-tier women’s magazines, some of which had rejected her when she was starting out.

Once more, a return to stories based on her personal experiences brought her success. Good Housekeeping accepted her story about having won a photography contest. (Who could resist a story about winning a porpoise?)

Moving into another tier of journalism justified her return to novel writing. Back when Lois submitted her first novel for publication, an editor required that her nineteen-year-old narrator drink a Coca-Cola instead of a beer (anticipating pushback) but now, the YA genre was burgeoning. She studied the market and recognized the opportunity for innovation in realistic and challenging stories for teens.

Her original publisher was unconvinced that her move into suspense writing would suit her existing audience, but Ransom (1966), her story about schoolchildren kidnapped on a school bus, was a finalist for the Edgar Allan Poe Award. So was her next novel, about teen boys who go missing on a hiking trip, They Never Came Home.

Lois’s decision to change publishers demonstrates how fervently she believed in her stories, but she remained flexible when editors warned of a misstep.

With Down a Dark Hall (1974), for instance, she was warned that having male ghosts terrorizing female students at a boarding school would rankle readers in an era when women’s rights were gaining traction; instead, she transformed one of the artist-and-writer specters into Emily Brontë.


Inspiration and Endurance

In 1982, the Times Literary Supplement described Lois Duncan’s work as popular “not only with the soft underbelly of the literary world, the children’s book reviewers, but with its most hardened carapace, the teenage library book borrower.”

When asked about her decision to write for teens, Duncan joked that she had been one herself.

It’s a more revealing response than it seems, given the key role that Duncan’s personal experiences played in her fiction. In her freshman year at Duke, in 1952, the ESP study that her class participated in inspired A Gift of Magic (1971), anticipating the popularity of paranormal stories.

Some of her main characters were based on acquaintances and family members, including each of her five children: “The character of Mark in Killing Mr. Griffin is based on Robin’s horrible first boyfriend. Kit, in Down a Dark Hall, is Kerry, and the mischievous Brendon in A Gift of Magic is Brett. Young Don and Kate [the younger children from her second marriage] are Neal and Megan in Stranger with My Face.”

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Who Killed My Daughter? by Lois Duncan

Who Killed My Daughter? (1992)
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One of her most notable books, written for adults but embraced by younger readers, is the non-fiction volume about her youngest daughter’s murder, Who Killed My Daughter? (1992). It was continued in One to the Wolves (2013).

After her daughter’s murder, Lois began to move away from suspense writing. She returned to a series begun decades earlier with Hotel for Dogs; News for Dogs and Movies for Dogs are light and witty stories for younger readers, in which the main character is “a carbon copy [of herself]… not only a dog lover but an aspiring writer, already submitting stories to magazines at age ten” complete with a little brother like Billy (Andi’s brother, Bruce).

Hotel For Dogs and I Know What You Did Last Summer (about the teens in a vehicle that strikes a cyclist on the road, and who leave the scene of their crime) remain her bestselling novels. Her teen suspense novels were never out of print in her lifetime, and she was active in the process of readying ten of those novels for reissue in 2010.

Speaking about the updates with Valerie O. Patterson, Lois described taking out the polyester pantsuits, updating hairstyles, and adding electronics.

The phones were the most challenging aspect to change because many of the plots turned on characters being unable to call for help: “I dropped them into toilets and rivers, had their batteries run down, had them loaned to friends who didn’t return them.”

Though her stories are renowned for their compelling plot lines, Lois credited their endurance to the energy she invested in character development: styles change more than human nature.

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Lois Duncan in School Library Journal

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Recognition and legacy

In 1971, Lois joined the journalism faculty at The University of New Mexico, where she taught for eleven years. At the same time, she took courses herself and in 1977 completed the degree she had begun many years before. Of course, she wrote about it: she submitted the story to Good Housekeeping and her payment covered the cost of her tuition.

Many of her books were recognized differently, having been banned in various schools and libraries. She speaks of Killing Mr. Griffin in particular (about students who kidnap their English teacher as a prank that goes wrong). She hypothesized that the title alone could have been problematic. Some challengers cited a violent scene from I Know What You Did Last Summer, which only appears in the film—not in the book. 

As a young writer, Lois Duncan won Seventeen Magazine’s short story contest three times. Many of her novels were cited as ALA Best Books and claimed readers’ choices awards. She also received the 1992 Margaret Edwards Award from the American Library Association (for a body of young adult literature).

In 2015, she received the Lifetime Achievement (Grand Master) award from the Mystery Writers of America.

Lois died on June 15, 2016 at the age of 82. Her obituaries emphasized her focus on realistic characters struggling to resolve moral dilemmas and taking responsibility for their decisions. “Without being didactic,” The Guardian wrote, her characters “showed readers the necessity of facing up to the consequences of their actions.”

In Publishers’ Weekly, Beverly Horowitz wrote that “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.”

Lois Duncan was proud of her literary accomplishments, but her response to her youngest daughter’s murder took her in an entirely different direction. Through her work to uncover the facts of her daughter’s case, she connected with other families who navigated the complex system for seeking justice for lost loved ones. In tandem with her literary accomplishments, she contributed to the creation of a research center to investigate cold cases, which evolved into the non-profit Resource Center for Victims of Violent Deaths.

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Contributed by Marcie McCauley, a graduate of the University of Western Ontario and the Humber College Creative Writing Program. She writes and reads (mostly women writers!) in Toronto, Canada. And she chats about it on Buried In Print and @buriedinprint

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