Explaining the Scandal Behind 'Where the Crawdads Sing'

The new movie, adapted from the mega-popular bestselling novel, has revived an unsolved murder case surrounding author Delia Owens.

where the crawdads sing, daisy edgar-jones
Sony Pictures Entertainment

Between the massive book sales, promotion for the film adaptation, and a new song that none other than Taylor Swift wrote for the movie, it feels like Delia Owens' Where the Crawdads Sing has been impossible to miss since it was published four years ago. It’s sold 12 million copies since coming out in 2018, and just notched its 167th week on the New York Times best seller list. Reese Witherspoon, who chose it for her Hello Sunshine Book Club, is also producing the film version arriving in theaters this Friday. Director Olivia Newman told Cinemablend that Owens was involved in "every step" of production, giving notes on the script and visiting the set, and was "extremely supportive" throughout. That’s an incredible trajectory for any book, but especially for a debut novel from a 70-year-old wildlife scientist like Delia Owens. And it’s even more uncommon for an author to be connected to a real-life murder mystery from two decades before her book became a runaway hit.

While Crawdads was Owens’ first work of fiction, she had written several works of nonfiction including Cry of the Kalahari and The Eye of the Elephant, both with her husband, Mark Owens, centering on time they spent living and working as conservationists in Botswana and Zambia. It was Eye of the Elephant, about their battles against elephant poachers in Zambia’s North Luangwa National Park, that brought them a new level of attention and caught the interest of ABC News producers. As The New Yorker‘s Jeffrey Goldberg covered as part of an 18,000-word feature in 2010, an ABC camera crew traveled to Zambia in 1995 to film a segment about the Owenses’ conservation and anti-poaching efforts in the country.

That footage became a 1996 Turning Point special called Deadly Game: The Mark and Delia Owens Story, which documented the Owenses' work protecting wildlife in the region amid rising tensions between game scouts and poachers. Shockingly, the documentary shows the apparent shooting death of a suspected poacher. (Yes, you read that correctly: The killing of that “trespasser,” as he’s reportedly referred to in the documentary, aired on national broadcast television in the United States.) The victim and the person (or people) who shot him were not identified.

According to The New Yorker, after the ABC special aired, Zambian authorities launched a homicide investigation. The Owenses left Zambia for the US and have not returned to the country since.

In a new piece this week for The Atlantic, Goldberg reports that authorities still want to question Mark, Delia, and her stepson Christopher about the death of the alleged poacher. The case has also been stalled due to the lack of an extradition treaty between the US and Zambia, and ABC’s apparent refusal to cooperate. "There is no statute of limitations on murder in Zambia," the country’s head of public prosecutions said. "They are all wanted for questioning in this case, including Delia Owens." (Delia has said over the years that she had nothing to do with the case. Per The Atlantic, lawyers for Mark and Christopher have also issued denials of any wrongdoing or involvement.)

mark and delia owens in zambia
Mark and Delia Owens in Zambia in 1990. | William Campbell/Corbis via Getty Images

Today, Delia and Mark Owens have reportedly divorced, and she seems to have moved from their Idaho ranch to North Carolina. It does not appear that Owens has made any recent comments about the case, but she invoked Kya, the protagonist of Where the Crawdads Sing, when asked about it back in 2019 by The New York Times.

"I was not involved. There was never a case, there was nothing," she said at the time, amid the huge success of her novel. "It’s painful to have that come up, but it’s what Kya had to deal with, name calling. You just have to put your head up or down, or whichever, you have to keep going and be strong. I’ve been charged by elephants before."

Which brings us back to Crawdads. The romantic thriller—some spoilers ahead, if you’re not one of those millions of people who’ve read it—follows Kya Clark (played in the film by Normal People’s Daisy Edgar-Jones), a young woman essentially left to raise herself in the North Carolina marshes in the 1950s and 1960s. Shunned by the people in town and referred to derisively as the "Marsh Girl," Kya prefers the company of nature to that of people, and passes time by boating out onto the marshes, collecting wildlife specimens, and drawing pictures of local flora and fauna that she eventually gets published in a series of books.

Crawdads toggles between Kya’s difficult childhood with her abusive father and her isolated young adulthood, then a murder mystery enters the equation. When local playboy and former star quarterback Chase Andrews is found dead, Kya is accused of killing him, and the novel follows the events of her trial. (Another, bigger spoiler alert: Kya is found not guilty, but a final plot twist reveals she did indeed kill Chase.)

Owens herself told Amazon in 2019 that "almost every part of this book has a deeper meaning." Others have pointed to parallels between the novel and the author’s life story. In The Atlantic, Goldberg noted that he read Where the Crawdads Sing in 2019 and was "surprised that its themes so obviously echoed aspects of Delia Owens’ life in Zambia." That same year, Slate's Lauren Miller wrote that the novel contains "striking echoes" of the Owenses’ "volatile years in the wilderness."

Miller goes on: "Both are lonely, yet prefer the company of animals to people; the Owenses’ memoirs recount one long search for life outside the human fold. 'Here’s where civilization ends,' Mark once said admiringly of North Luangwa, Goldberg reports. Kya is depicted as a misunderstood victim, cast out of society by the small-minded prejudices of her neighbors. In his closing statements, her defense attorney exhorts the jury and the town itself to examine its conscience: 'We labeled and rejected her because we thought she was different. But, ladies and gentlemen, did we exclude Miss Clark because she was different, or was she different because we excluded her?'"

It remains to be seen if the film will achieve the same level of success the book has enjoyed, despite the controversy. Reviews have been middling, with a Rotten Tomatoes score currently sitting at 38%, but it has gotten the seal of approval from Owens herself. When she saw it a few weeks ago, she declared on Instagram that it was "FABULOUS." Owens did attend the LA premiere of the movie, posing alongside the cast and crew for photos. But when it came to the film’s premiere in New York City this week, however, a far cry from Kya’s marshes and Owens’ wide-open homesteads, she apparently was not in attendance. 

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