When I look back, Elizabeth Duncan’s trial is linked inextricably in my mind to the sound of my father’s voice…I read every word of his newspaper articles, and I scrutinized the front-page photos of all the trial participants…I hung on every detail of his spellbinding tales, and although I’d never met any of these people, I knew them all very well.
-from Deborah Holt Larkin’s A Lovely Girl (Pegasus, 2021)
Deborah Holt Larkin’s A Lovely Girl is a true crime book that manages to be both tasteful and readable. Like Poe Ballantine’s Love and Terror on the Howling Plains of Nowhere, A Lovely Girl recounts the investigation of a murder case with a heavy dose of personal memoir, making for an experience that’s more nuanced than your typical true crime fare.
The true crime genre is so ubiquitous now that it’s easy to forget how fucked up its popularity is. There’s something jarring about the fact that many Americans find entertainment value in learning about some of the most heinous acts imaginable. And by “many Americans,” I mostly mean “many American women.” I’m not trying to be sexist, I’m just stating something many people have noticed during the genre’s recent upswing in popularity—the fandom is overwhelmingly female. It’s only natural to wonder why this is, just as it was natural to wonder why the My Little Pony fandom became overwhelmingly male in the 2010s or why Germans love David Hasselhoff.
And though I hate the word “problematic,” I can’t think of a better word to describe true crime as a concept. I know that this genre can and has helped renew interest in cold cases, but part of me also worries that, on the off-chance that I’m murdered, a gaggle of thirty-somethings on a podcast will gush about how many stab wounds I suffered before succumbing to death’s sweet embrace in a snowy ditch outside Enid, Oklahoma. Followed by an ad from their sponsor, Hello Fresh, of course.
A Lovely Girl manages to follow the tried and true true crime script while also breaking free of it. That’s because it’s really two stories in one: the Olga Duncan murder case, and Larkin’s childhood.
The book’s proper true crime chapters follow the investigation and subsequent trial of the murder of Olga Duncan, a nurse who was killed shortly after her marriage to attorney Frank Duncan. Olga’s mother-in-law, Elizabeth Duncan, was so possessive of her darling Frankie that she hired two men to kidnap and murder Olga in November, 1958. Soon after, detectives uncovered Elizabeth’s role in Olga’s disappearance after her son suspected that his mother was being blackmailed by former convicts Augustine Baldonado and Luis Moya. Little did Frank know that Baldonado and Moya were blackmailing his mother because she had failed to pay them properly for killing Olga. The bad guys are arrested, the bad lady is arrested soon after, they’re tried and put to death, etc. If you’ve read one true crime book, you know what to expect. It’s just grim and bloody enough to hold your attention while not becoming exploitative.
This would all be pretty forgettable if it weren’t for Larkin’s first-person memoir chapters. These chapters follow the childhood of the author growing up in southern California in the late 1950s with her kid sister, journalist father, and a mother who worked at a psychiatric hospital at a time when psychiatry was still in its awkward preteen phase. It was a surreal, semi-magical era in which multi-lane interstates and sprawling suburbs inspired hope rather than malaise, nuclear armageddon seemed as inevitable as Christmas, Miranda v. Arizona was just a twinkle in the Supreme Court’s eye, California had yet to repeal the death penalty, and people ate saltines with butter. As someone who grew up in the 2000s, Larkin’s 1950s California is an alien world, but it’s one which Larkin describes so charmingly that I found myself waxing nostalgic for it.
A Lovely Girl is a retrospective of a prominent murder case, sure, but it’s also Larkin’s retrospective on her own relationship with the case and other cases like it. In this way, it’s not just true crime but a reflection on why people write true crime in the first place. On one hand, there’s the murder, the investigation, the litigation, etc. But on the other hand, there are people like Larkin who, as a child, watched Dragnet, read Nancy Drew novels, and discussed Olga’s murder with her father as he reported on the court proceedings. Murder trials showcase human nature at its worst, and it’s inevitable that these cases inspire not only fear, but fascination as well. The two emotions are inextricable.
Larkin herself puts it best in the book’s afterword:
Olga Duncan’s disappearance and murder ignited my life-long fascination with the true crime genre, not because I like blood and violence, but because of my own feelings of vulnerability.
This world can be scary as hell. What happened to Olga could have happened to any woman unlucky enough to marry into the Duncan family. And while Larkin does as good a job as any writer could presenting the facts of the case, she also helps answer a question I’ve asked myself many times over the past two years: “Why the hell are people (i.e., mostly women) so enamored with true crime?”
I think the 2020 lockdowns have something to do with it. When you’re compelled to stay indoors almost 24/7, murder-centric media is one of the few things that will keep you from going mentally and emotionally numb.
But there’s also the harsh reality that most true crime podcasts, books, and documentaries seem to cover atrocities committed against women by men. That’s because most women who are murdered are murdered by men. And though Olga Duncan’s murder was orchestrated by a woman, the people who did her in were men. Again, I’m not trying to be sexist, but I don’t think it’s sexist to state that, while violence doesn’t have a creed or color, it usually has a Y chromosome. You can call this “sex realism” if you want. The fact that men have (on average) greater physical strength than women coupled with (again, on average) poorer emotional control is a terrifying reality to live with. As someone with a Y chromosome, I suppose I could apologize for the bad eggs of my sex , but I won’t because that wouldn’t accomplish jack shit.
True crime allows you to look at the bloodthirsty tigers of the world (i.e., violent men) through foot-thick glass. The glass allows you to confront the tigers in a way that doesn’t make you feel entirely helpless. The tigers alone would be terrifying. The glass without the tigers would serve no purpose. But the glass and the tigers together give you a feeling of security that’s as thrilling as it is comforting. You’re fearful on one level. That’s natural. But you’re fascinated, too. The carnage of true crime is a controlled carnage, and I think that’s the secret behind its appeal and success.
Let’s be honest—true crime is not highly regarded as a literary genre for a reason. For every In Cold Blood, there will always be an exploitative true crime title that will spend more time describing a murder victim’s panties and stab wounds than actual detective work. But as far as entertainment goes, there are far worse things you could be consuming. And if you’re already a fan of the genre, A Lovely Girl is a more reflective take on a time-worn formula. It may also help you better understand why you’re subscribed to fifteen true crime podcasts.
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