Review: A Lovely Girl by Deborah Holt Larkin

cover of A Lovely GirlA Lovely Girl: The Tragedy of Olga Duncan and the Trial of One of California’s Most Notorious Killers by Deborah Holt Larkin
Pegasus Crime (October 2022)
528 pages; $21.60 hardcover; $18.99 ebook
Reviewed by Haley Newlin

From the iconic mothers in horror fiction, like Norman Bates’ tormenting, ever-invasive mother, Norma, and Stephen King’s evangelically evil Margaret White from Carrie, to real-world terrifying tales of mommy dearests, motherhood captivates audiences.

That was true of the case of Elizabeth Duncan, depicted in A Lovely Girl. Holt Larkin masterfully awakens the long-forgotten case of People v. Elizabeth Duncan with a standout coming-of-age perspective from Deborah Holt Larkin and that of her father, acclaimed true crime journalist Bob Holt.

In 1958, kids listened in on their parents’ backyard chatter. Their greatest fears weren’t the shadows that lurked in the space from their beds to bedroom doors, but one that threatened national annihilation: Russia. Holt Larkin recalls an elementary school teacher saying, “You kids have to study harder, or the Russians will take over.”

Of course, Americans realized Sputnik wasn’t a military threat, and they continued with their space missions, including the notorious send-off of Gordo. For that, parents told white lies and conjured fantasies of a safe and happy space chimp. Still, a young Holt Larkin questioned her parents’ tale.

Her need-to-know mentality only grew after a pregnant nurse, Olga Duncan, husband of the defense attorney, Frank Duncan, disappeared from her apartment late one evening. And suddenly, there was something far more fearsome than a Russian satellite. A kidnapper. Or worse… a killer.

Police recovered Olga’s battered body days later, “beaten down to the bone,” after Frank’s continuous assurance that his wife was attempting to tarnish his public image because he’d chosen to continue to live with his mother. But a fellow nurse at the hospital shares that Frank’s mother had been harassing Olga both at work and home — which the landlady also confirmed. And to make matters more suspect, Frank Duncan is nowhere to be found. From there, the story of Olga Duncan unravels into murderous, motherly mayhem that will devour readers and sink its teeth into them with each impetuous act from Ms. Elizabeth Duncan and the measures she allegedly underwent to keep her son “Frankie” all to herself.

Drowning. Hanging. Cover in lye. How could one daydream about harming such a sweet, lovely girl like Olga Duncan?

With the same narrative poise and edge-of-your-seat detail of Anne Rule’s accredited true crime coverage, Holt Larkin’s A Lovely Girl is not to be missed, especially for those who enjoyed Netflix’s documentary series Murdaugh Murders: A Southern Scandal, Robert Bloch’s Psycho, and Netflix’s Sins of Our Mother.

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