Revisiting Old Friends: Lois Duncan’s YA mysteries

Sometimes old friends show up in odd places.  Sometimes, it isn’t so much that the place is odd, but rather the timing, or rather the identity of the friend.  Why them?  Why then?  Why there?  Why did I run into Childhood-Classmate-Fourteen at the luggage carousel on December 15th in the year 2006?

More pertinently, why did I run into Lois Duncan mysteries in Collection Development class in March of 2011?

I admit that I as a pre-teen, I had few close friends and was a social outcast at school.  I preferred to read and write than hang out with other kids, so my fond memories of being a twelve-year-old also include my friends that were better known as paperbacks.  I love all kinds of books of different genres, though I have my preferred favourites.  I had favourite authors, partly because their work was reliable, and partly because the school librarian kept suggested authors and titles for me, and once she learned that I liked one author or another, she would ensure that I read all of that author’s books that our little school library had.  While everyone else thought the librarian was a mean old lady, I enjoyed talking to her and wanted to learn all I could about the library.

Anyhow, nostalgia aside, one of my favourite authors was Lois Duncan.  She writes primarily mysteries, supernatural or otherwise, and thrillers for young adults.  Some of her well-known works include I Know What You Did Last Summer and Killing Mr Griffin.  Of course, these were the books that I enjoyed the least.  My favourites of hers are the ones that are obscure and/or out of print, after having enjoyed a resurgence in the 1990s.  Lois Duncan started publishing in the 1960s, and some of her novels reflect this temporal dissonance.  Like many books from the past, many plots could have been simply resolved with modern technology.  However, her stories remain exciting and I was not fazed by reading stories set twenty or thirty years in the past when I was twelve.  Most of them are not explicitly historical novels and use little historical references, so the only thing that dates them are the technology and such.  Since most of her stories are not based on technology, they still do not feel dated.

I have decided to share my favourite Lois Duncan novels, since many of them are no longer found in library collections or on bookstore shelves.  I recommend them all if you can find them!  They have female protagonists, but many of the stories also have important male characters whose perspective we get a glimpse of: They Never Came Home almost has two protagonists, but the young man is not featured in the summary of the book.  In chronological order:

Ransom (copyright 1966): Five teenagers get kidnapped on the way home from school; this is a straight-up suspense story following the teens’ ordeal, the parents’ attempts to get them back, and even delves into the kidnappers’ backstory.  The five teens are fairly stereotypical on the surface: the preppy girl, the artsy loner girl, the jock boy, his less-of-a-jock younger brother, and the outcast troublesome boy.  However, as the story progresses, each of them is explored in-depth.  This book is very tame by today’s standards and may seem formulaic, but it is a good suspense tale.  Highly recommended for ages 12-17, particularly for a more sensitive reader.

They Never Came Home (c. 1968): Joan, who is in her last year of high school, has to come to terms with the disappearance (and deaths) of her brother and her boyfriend.  Her mother falls apart completely, while Joan strikes up a friendship with her boyfriend’s younger brother.  The events follow several months after the boys’ disappearance and made me fall in love with the American Southwest.  While even as a pre-teen I could recognise that this story was somewhat oldfashioned, the characters and setting feel fresh and are easy to relate to.  What did tip me off to it being set in the late 1960s was that Joan faced little opposition when she decided not to go to university.  A parallel plot in this story features a young man in California.  Highly recommended for teen audiences, especially girls wanting a romance story without heavy sexual overtones.

The Third Eye (c. 1984): Karen is a psychic, and thus an outcast at her school.  As she becomes increasingly frustrated with her visions, she loses her boyfriend and is alienated from her parents.  She ends up teaming up with a young rebellious police officer to solve a crime involving kidnapped babies, and faces death many times.  This is a fantastic mystery-romance (or romance-mystery?) with a dose of the supernatural, highly recommended for teen girls.  It is a nice blend of girl-power and marriage-and-babies, which is a delicate balance.  Karen’s psychic powers are also treated with respect by the author, but Lois Duncan does not glorify the supernatural in this book. (From a religious perspective, psychic powers are treated as a divine gift, although there is question whether it is demonic or not.)

Locked in Time (c. 1985): This is another family drama that incorporates religious and supernatural elements.  Nore is seventeen when her father remarries a younger woman from southern Louisiana; she is forced to move in with them and her two new teenage stepsiblings: Gabe and Josie.  Since this story takes place over the summer, the action is largely confined to the environs of the old Southern plantation that they live on.  Nore pretty much only interacts with her family, but she soon is embroiled in a mystery that rapidly descends into a life-or-death situation for her, and she cannot be sure who to trust.  Highly recommended for ages 12-18, and I would include it on a read-alike list for Stephanie Meyer’s Twilight.

These are my four favourite Lois Duncan titles.  Others that I enjoyed include A Gift of Magic (c.1971), Gallows Hill (c.1997), and the anthology Trapped (c.1998).  I would definitely recommend the above four titles to young teens and pre-teens, particularly to girls who like mysteries and deep subjects, but who are not ready for a lot of mature sexual content.

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