Lois Duncan, who held generations of young readers spellbound with “I Know What You Did Last Summer,” “Killing Mr. Griffin” and a raft of other popular suspense novels, a genre she could no longer bear to write after the unsolved murder of her teenage daughter, died June 15 at her home in Bradenton, Fla. She was 82.
Her husband, Donald Arquette Sr., confirmed her death and said he did not know the cause. She had earlier suffered a series of strokes.
First published as a novelist in the 1950s, Ms. Duncan wrote dozens of books for children and teens. She was most widely acclaimed for her psychological thrillers, sometimes touching on the occult, which she penned with prolific output in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.
“I Know What You Did Last Summer,” unfaithfully adapted more than two decades after its publication into the 1997 slasher movie and sequel starring Jennifer Love Hewitt, was the most famous of the numerous films and TV movies made from Ms. Duncan’s books.
Along with S.E. Hinton, Judy Blume and Robert Cormier, Ms. Duncan was credited with helping establish the genre of young-adult fiction — literature carefully tailored for readers who are neither children nor grown-ups, who know more than it may seem but not enough to make their way in the world.
Unlike Blume, who took her mainly female protagonists through ordinary, if wrenching, experiences such as puberty, young love and parental divorce, Ms. Duncan plucked her characters from normalcy and placed them in extraordinary, often dark circumstances.
“I Know What You Did Last Summer,” published in 1973, centers on four teenagers who accidentally kill a young bicyclist and leave the scene, vowing to keep the incident a secret even as their sense of guilt — and a mysterious menace professing to know what they had done — become increasingly frightening.
In “Down a Dark Hall” (1974), Ms. Duncan ventured into the supernatural, setting the story at a haunted boarding school for girls. “Summer of Fear” (1976), about a teenage girl and her strange cousin, dipped its toe in witchcraft. “Stranger With My Face” (1981) involved an evil twin seeking to possess her sister’s body through astral projection.
Many critics found Ms. Duncan’s most compelling writing in her exploration of moral darkness. In “Killing Mr. Griffin” (1978), a crew of high school students kidnaps an exacting English teacher to punish him for what they see as his excessive demands. Without his heart medication, the teacher dies during the ordeal, pushing the students into a corrosive coverup.
The students — a jock, a homecoming queen, a class president, a misfit and a charismatic but troubled ringleader — captured a universe of teenage experiences.
“Lois Duncan breaks some new ground in a novel without sex, drugs or black leather jackets,” young adult author Richard Peck wrote in the New York Times in 1978. “But the taboo she tampers with is far more potent and pervasive: the unleashed fury of the permissively reared against any assault on their egos and authority. . . . The value of the book lies in the twisted logic of the teenagers and how easily they can justify anything.”
In 1989, Ms. Duncan published “Don’t Look Behind You,” a novel about a family thrust into the witness-protection program after the father testifies against a drug dealer. Shortly after its publication, Ms. Duncan’s 18-year-old daughter, Kaitlyn Arquette, was fatally shot twice in the head while driving. Kaitlyn had been the inspiration for the novel’s fictional heroine, April, who was chased in a car by a hit man.
“It was as if these things I’d written about as fiction became hideous reality,” Ms. Duncan told an interviewer, according to the reference guide Contemporary Authors.
The police considered the death a random shooting, according to news accounts, and no one was convicted of the killing.
Ms. Duncan and her husband embarked on a private investigation that included psychics, ultimately concluding that their daughter had perhaps been targeted because she had knowledge of a rental car insurance fraud scheme involving the criminal underworld. Ms. Duncan documented their search in the 1992 book “Who Killed My Daughter?”
After her daughter’s murder, Ms. Duncan wrote mainly picture books, as well as two sequels to “Hotel for Dogs,” a book published in 1971 about children who take in stray animals. “Hotel for Dogs” became a 2009 film starring Emma Roberts and Jake T. Austin.
“I went weak after Kait’s murder,” Ms. Duncan told BuzzFeed interviewer Tim Stelloh. “How could I even think about creating a novel with a young woman in a life-threatening situation?”
Lois Duncan Steinmetz was born in Philadelphia on April 28, 1934, and grew up in Sarasota, Fla. Her parents, Joseph and Lois Steinmetz, were magazine photographers. To avoid confusion with her mother, the younger Lois adopted Duncan for her nom de plume.
She sold her first piece of writing to a girls’ magazine at 13. As a teen, she won short-story contests sponsored by Seventeen magazine.
She enrolled in Duke University but left to marry a classmate, Joseph Cardozo. She wrote her first books, mainly romances, while juggling the demands of early motherhood and using the pen name Lois Kerry.
In 1962, Ms. Duncan divorced and moved her young family to Albuquerque. She wrote for magazines including Ladies’ Home Journal, Good Housekeeping and Reader’s Digest and taught journalism at the University of New Mexico before receiving a bachelor’s degree in English there in 1977.
After marrying Donald Arquette in 1965, Ms. Duncan returned to young-adult writing, pivoting from romance to suspense, writing her first noted thriller, “Ransom” (1966), about five teenagers from a well-to-do neighborhood who are taken hostage by their school bus driver.
A later book, “Daughters of Eve” (1979), about a group of high school girls led by a teacher to vigilante acts of revenge in the name of feminism, was described as a female version of William Golding’s “Lord of the Flies.”
Besides her husband, of Bradenton, Ms. Duncan’s survivors include three children from her first marriage, whom Arquette adopted, Robin Burkin of Santa Rosa, Calif., Kerry Arquette of Denver and Brett Arquette of Orlando; a son from her second marriage, Donald Arquette Jr. of Macon, Ga.; a brother; and six grandchildren.
A number of Ms. Duncan’s books have been updated and reissued in recent years. The existence of cellphones, she said, created unexpected complications. “My plots,” she told the Los Angeles Times, “are based on the heroine not being able to call for help.”
Other things, she remarked, had not changed. They included, she told the New York Times, “girls wanting to be loved, wanting to be needed, wanting to feel worth, wanting to find a place for themselves in life, wanting to figure out what was right and what was wrong.”
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