A Lovely Girl: The Tragedy of Olga Duncan and the Trial of One of California’s Most Notorious Killers by Deborah Holt Larkin

My friends at Wunderkind-PR reached out to me and offered my a copy of this new novel by Deborah Holt Larkin, retelling the story of the murder of Olga Duncan. Though raised in Northern California in the 70’s, I had never heard of this sad story. Olga was a young, married woman, pregnant with her first child, and murdered by her mother-in-law who wanted to keep her son for herself. Hard to believe and at times hard to read, but apparently that is what happened.

Here’s the overview:

The incredible story of a 1958 murder that ended with the last woman to ever be executed in California—a murder so twisted it seems ripped from a Greek tragedy.

Deborah Larkin was only ten years old when the quiet calm of her California suburb was shattered.  Thirty miles north, on a quiet November night in Santa Barbara, a pregnant nurse named Olga Duncan disappeared from her apartment.  The mystery deepens when it is discovered that Olga’s mother in-law—a deeply manipulative and deceptive woman—had been doing everything in her power to separate Olga and her son, Frank, prior to Olga’s disappearance.

From a forged annulment to multiple attempts to hire people to “get rid” of Olga, to a faked excoriation case, Elizabeth seemed psychopathically attached to her son. Yet she denied having anything to do with Olga’s disappearance with a smile.

But when Olga’s brutally beaten body is found in a shallow grave, apparently buried alive, a young DA makes it his mission to see that Elizabeth Duncan is brought to justice.  Adding a wrinkle to his efforts is the fact that Frank—himself a defense attorney—maintained his mother’s innocent to the end.

How does a young girl process such a crime along with the fear and disbelieve that rocked an entire community?  Decades later, Larkin is determined to revisit the case and bring the story of Olga herself to light.  Long overshadowed by the sensationalism and scandal of Elizabeth and Frank, A Lovely Girl seeks to reveal Olga as a woman in full.  Someone who was more than the twisted family that would ultimately ensnare her.

As we follow the heart-pounding drama of the case through Larkin’s young eyes—her father was the court reporter—A Lovely Girl is by turns page-turning yet poignant, and makes the reader reexamine how we handle fear, how we regard mental illness, and how we understand family as we carve our own path in a dangerous world.

The details of the story are pretty disturbing and the story sticks with you long afterwards. Larkin tells the tale through a variety of voices. For me, the strongest portrayal is when she writes as her young self and about her family at that time. Larkin’s father was a newspaper reporter who covered the case closely, and her depictions of their family life with all is eccentricities was at times laugh out loud funny. The picture she paints of middle class California family life in the late 50’s is vividly detailed. I found these “young Deborah” chapters, as well as the chapters following the court trial – which used the actual court scripts – a more vivid portrayal than some in other voices. This story is in depth – it clocks in at over 500 pages.

Overall, if you are a true crime reader, don’t miss this sad but interesting story. You will remember Olga long afterward.

Thank you for my review copy!

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