Sometimes truth really is stranger than fiction. A Lovely Girl: The Tragedy of Olga Duncan & the Trial of One of California’s Most Notorious Killers tells the bizarre, gripping, and tragic story of the world’s worst mother-in-law, a gruesome murder, and a sensational trial that ended with the last woman to be executed in the state of California. Part coming-of-age story about growing up in the 1950s, and part true crime account, this book sheds light on a period in American history when doors were left unlocked, everyone drove big cars, and families gathered around the dinner table each night. Yet just down the road, a psychopathic woman plotted the grisly murder of her pregnant daughter-in-law, shaking a California suburb to its core and captivating a nation.
Deborah Holt Larkin was just 10 years old when, in 1958, she learned that monsters were real, and that they sometimes appeared as doting mothers who wore horn-rimmed glasses. From the perspective of her childhood in Ventura, California, Larkin tells the story of Elizabeth Duncan, a conwoman whose obsession with her own son spiraled into the heinous murder of her seven-month-pregnant daughter-in-law, Olga. Larkin had a front-row seat to the dramatic case because her father, Bob Holt, was the lead reporter for the local newspaper covering the trial.
The tragedy of the “lovely girl” and devoted nurse, Olga Duncan, began when she went missing from her Santa Barbara apartment in November 1958. Soon it was revealed that her Defense Attorney husband, Frank, left the seven-month pregnant Olga to move back in with his mother and had not seen or heard from Olga in the ten days prior to her disappearance. Eventually, the police questioned Olga’s landlady, who claimed she had met Frank’s mother, Mrs. Elizabeth “Betty” Duncan, when she came looking for Olga. According to the landlady, Betty was ranting and raving about how much she hated Olga and would kill her if it was the last thing she ever did. As the truth about Betty was revealed, a chilling portrait of a jealous, possessive mother intent on forever separating her son from his wife begins to emerge. When Olga’s beaten body was discovered, a young District Attorney stopped at nothing to convict Betty of hiring two men to kidnap and murder Olga and her unborn baby.
Alternating between scenes of Larkin’s day-to-day life in Ventura and a detailed reenactment of the investigation and trial, an incredible, shocking story unfolds, ultimately leading to the last execution of a woman in the state of California. In this true crime story blended memoir, Larkin pays tribute to her journalist father, shines a sympathetic light on the life of Olga Duncan, and gives an eye-opening account of a sensational trial from a bygone era, all of which had a lasting impact on Larkin’s life.
A Lovely Girl by Deborah Holt Larkin
In her debut novel, Deborah Holt Larkin revisits the case that changed her life. Part coming-of-age story and part true crime account, this is the shocking story of the murder of Olga Duncan and the stranger-than-fiction trial that gripped a nation and ended with the last woman to ever be executed in the state of California.
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This is an incredibly sad and heartbreaking story about a young woman whose life could have been saved if people had cared enough, or were brave enough, to speak up about Betty. It’s clear from Larkin’s writing that this had a profound impact on her worldview at a young age, and my heart hurt for that 10-year-old girl who learned for the first time that the world could be a scary place. The details of the murder were grisly and horrific. I could feel her emotion and sympathy through her storytelling, and I really appreciated learning about this case from someone who had such a personal connection to it. Larkin did a wonderful job presenting the facts of the case in a straightforward way that was not clouded by her emotions, which allowed the reader to experience it without being “told” how to feel about it.
The setting of the 1950s lended an interesting aspect to the book that I did not expect. The trial itself, especially the way reporters and the public had access to the witnesses, defendants, and attorneys, was fascinating. It was easy to see how the case became so sensationalized. Larkin also explores the thoughts, feelings, and politics surrounding the death penalty during this time. I was completely unaware that gas chambers were still in use in the state of California in the 1950s, and while disturbing, I was interested to see how societal views and the political landscape have evolved so much in a relatively short period of time since then.
At the heart of this story, though, is the people who were caught up in this case, whether or not by their own volition. The facts that come out about Betty are truly astounding, and I wanted to know more about how and why this woman was like this, especially in the 1950s. While I did appreciate many aspects of Larkin’s personal life, sometimes they felt a little too frivolous and detracted from the story of the case. I found myself skimming through some of these parts to get back to the investigation and trial chapters. At over 500 pages, it felt a bit long, and some of these chapters could have been trimmed down a bit. Overall, I would definitely recommend this book to fans of true crime who enjoy interesting historical settings and stories told from a personal perspective.
For fans of true crime: Do you enjoy memoirs as part of a true crime story, or do you prefer the stories to be told from an outsider’s perspective?
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When I was a young girl living in Chicago, teenage boys were disappearing, never to be heard from again. John Wayne Gacy was my introduction into the true crime phenomenon and it sparked my interest in learning more about murderers and the families impacted by them. A Lovely Girl describes the twisted events of a narcissistic mother’s desire to be rid of her son’s pregnant wife.
As an avid reader and watcher of true crime stories, I found the structure of this book intriguing due to the author’s connection to the story. The author was 10-years-old when Olga Duncan disappeared and her father, a news reporter, wrote about the trial. I didn’t know anything about this murder when I started the book and was fascinated by the 1950s police investigation. The book alternates chapters with a fact-based reenactment of the case, which made it read like I was watching it on a screen. The other chapters played out like a child’s memoir, as the author frequently inserted the day-in and day-out activities of her family’s life. In a child’s narrative, the author wrote of both major and minor details of the time period, ranging from politics and religion to her pet bird and toenail polish.
I rated this book three stars because I really enjoyed the chapters discussing the components of the crime and the investigation. Although the author’s memories and the impact this case made on her were helpful, fewer childhood references would have been sufficient while still adding a personal touch. Too much of this book focused on trivial moments and really took away from my overall engagement with Olga’s story. I would like to know more about the victim, her husband Frank, and her mother-in-law, Betty, as well as the men who were hired to kill her.