The phrase “literary phenomenon” is bandied about less than it once was, but Delia Owens’s Where the Crawdads Sing does deserve that overheated description. Published in 2018, the novel — a coming-of-age tale wrapped in a murder mystery — racked up sales of 4.5 million over the its first 18 months. It was the biggest-selling adult novel of 2019. This would be remarkable even if Crawdads were not the debut novel of a zoologist and conservationist who was then closing in on her 70th birthday.
Inevitably, the book generated a “major movie”. This weekend Daisy Edgar-Jones and David Strathairn land in a slice of clammy southern gothic produced by Reese Witherspoon. Despite indifferent reviews, Olivia Newman’s movie has already clocked up a strong opening weekend in the United States.
All this is good news for Owens. But the attention again drags up uncomfortable reminders of a still-controversial death in Africa a quarter of a century ago. The information has long been out there.
In 2010 Jeffrey Goldberg published an 18,000-word article in the New Yorker with the subheading “Did American conservationists in Africa go too far?” The story details the often commendable work that Owens and her then husband, Mark Owens, carried out in Botswana and Zambia. “The Owenses supplied clinics, held workshops in Aids prevention, and trained traditional birth attendants,” Goldberg writes of their work in North Luangwa National Park.
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More contentious was their involvement with the campaign against the illegal killing of endangered animals. In 1995 a crew from the US TV network ABC filmed a documentary segment on the Owenses — whose son Christopher was then also part of the team — that took in the killing of an alleged poacher. No firm evidence is offered for the man’s supposed crimes. ABC settles on the word “trespasser”.
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[ Daisy Edgar-Jones on family, fame and her role in Where the Crawdads Sing ]
Returning to the story for the Atlantic this month, Goldberg noted that the authorities are still interested. “The country’s director of public prosecutions, Lillian Shawa-Siyuni, confirmed what officials at the Criminal Investigation Department of the Zambian national police told me,” he writes. “Mark, Delia, and Christopher Owens are still wanted for questioning related to the killing of the alleged poacher, as well as other possible criminal activities in North Luangwa.”
After watching the ABC documentary, melodramatically titled Deadly Game: The Mark and Delia Owens Story, Goldberg visited the national park. By this point the Owenses had left the country. Goldberg went on to list a series of worrying stories about a team of “scouts” that drew a strong response from the couple’s lawyers.
“The Owenses’ attorneys denied that Mark commanded scouts and said he was not responsible for their actions, and denied that anyone was tied to a stake or beaten,” Goldberg confirms. Delia Owens also firmly denied any responsibility for the killing of the alleged poacher. “We don’t know anything about it,” she said. “The only thing Mark ever did was throw firecrackers out of his plane, but just to scare poachers, not to hurt anyone.”
Delia and Mark Owens were already well known by the time of the ABC broadcast. Cry of the Kalahari, relating their work with lions in Botswana, was a bestseller in the mid-1980s. Other nonfiction titles, such as The Eye of the Elephant and Secrets of the Savanna, followed. But the meteoric success of Where the Crawdads Sing has taken Delia’s fame to another level.
It is, however, not just her elevated visibility that has drawn journalists back to the controversy in Zambia. The novel’s plot offers some unfortunate echoes of the still-unsolved death. Where the Crawdads Sing concerns a young girl who, mistreated and eventually abandoned by her father, grows up as an archetypal “wild child” in the marshes of North Carolina. The story properly kicks off when the body of a young man is found at the base of a fire tower. There is no real evidence against the protagonist — now a friend to local fauna — but a whispering campaign eventually brings her before a judge.
[ Where the Crawdads Sing: Read our review of the novel, from 2019 ]
It is here necessary to offer a spoiler warning for anyone still intending to read the book (which I have not done) or see the film (the scars have yet to heal). It eventually transpires that, despite some narrative misdirection, the heroine did indeed kill the man and has been effectively, and apparently remorselessly, keeping her secret for decades.
When the book was published Goldberg received a number of puzzled emails from readers of his New Yorker piece, then nine years old. “I got a copy of Crawdads and I have to say I found it strange and uncomfortable to be reading the story of a Southern loner, a noble naturalist, who gets away with what is described as a righteously motivated murder in the remote wild,” he told Slate magazine in 2019.
None of which does anything to tidy up a real-life case that remains shrouded in murk. Goldberg’s enormous, deeply researched article, still available online, asks more questions than will ever be satisfactorily answered. But it is interesting to note how, even in the age of endless social-media outrage, the controversy has done little to damage the book’s sales or intrude on promotion for the film. Few novelists would countenance such an unlikely development.
Where the Crawdads Sing is on general release from Friday