When Delia Owens, a retired wildlife biologist, released her novel “Where the Crawdads Sing” in 2018, no one anticipated a blockbuster. Owens, who is in her early 70s, had never published fiction before. Her publisher printed a modest run of 28,000 hardcover copies.
Four years later, the novel has sold 15 million copies, and has spent 168 weeks on The New York Times best-seller list. A recently released feature film, starring Daisy Edgar-Jones, brought in $17 million on its opening weekend, and helped drive the novel back to the top of the best-seller lists.
But the novel’s, and now the film’s, commercial success has been clouded by renewed questions about Owens’s conservation work in Zambia, which was clouded by controversy following the death of a suspected poacher in 1995. The death happened during an anti-poaching patrol, which was part of a conservation project run by Owens and her then husband, Mark Owens. The shooting was recorded by an ABC crew that was filming a documentary about the work the Owenses did there. After the episode aired in 1996, Zambian officials opened an investigation, but the victim was never identified and the case was never solved.
The case and the Owenses’ connection to it was first extensively covered by Jeffrey Goldberg in a 2010 New Yorker article. Asked about the incident during an interview with The New York Times in 2019, Owens said she had nothing to do with the shooting and was never accused of wrongdoing, but declined to elaborate on the circumstances.
“I was not involved,” she said. “There was never a case, there was nothing.”
On Tuesday, a publicist for Owens said the author did not have any additional comment.
But Zambian officials have not closed the case, and still want to question Mark and Delia Owens about the incident, according to new reporting by Goldberg in The Atlantic. Goldberg recently returned to Lusaka, Zambia’s capital, and spoke to the director of public prosecutions, who confirmed that the case was still open. “There is no statute of limitations on murder in Zambia,” the country’s director of public prosecutions, Lillian Shawa-Siyuni, told Goldberg. “They are all wanted for questioning in this case, including Delia Owens.”
Many questions remain about the unsolved case, but here is what we know about Owens, her work and her time in Zambia.
What was Owens doing in Zambia?
Before she was a best-selling novelist, Owens was a well known wildlife biologist. She idolized Jane Goodall, studied zoology at the University of Georgia and received her doctorate in animal behavior from the University of California, Davis.
In 1974, she and Mark Owens moved to Africa to study wildlife, an experience they wrote about in their co-authored nonfiction books, “The Eye of the Elephant,” published in 1992, and “Secrets of the Savanna,” released in 2006. At their research camp in the Kalahari Desert in Botswana, they studied the migration patterns and social behaviors of lions and hyenas. In 1985, they moved to Zambia, where they maintained a 5,000-square-mile preserve to prevent poaching of elephants and other wildlife. They occasionally fought over Mark’s increasingly risky anti-poaching missions, which he conducted through patrols with armed game guards, Delia wrote in “The Eye of the Elephant.” Mark Owens also wrote about his fears that he and Delia had become targets of the poachers and might be shot and killed.
They left Zambia in 1996 and moved to Idaho, where they worked on grizzly bear conservation.
Is ‘Crawdads’ related to her work there?
“Where the Crawdads Sing” doesn’t draw directly on Owens’s time in Africa, but there are echoes of her work as a naturalist. Set in 1950s and 1960s North Carolina, the narrative blends elements of murder mystery, romance and nature writing with a coming-of-age story about a girl named Kya who grew up alone in the marshes.
In interviews, Owens has drawn parallels between her life as an introverted nature lover and Kya’s isolation and immersion in the natural world. Owens said she based the novel in part on her experience living in the wilderness. “It’s about trying to make it in a wild place,” she said in an interview with The Times.
She also compared herself to Kya, who is subjected to vicious rumors and ostracized, when she was asked about the controversy surrounding the killing of the alleged poacher, and questions about her role there.
“It’s painful to have that come up, but it’s what Kya had to deal with, name calling,” Owens told The Times. “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.”
Why is she wanted for questioning?
No charges were ever brought against Mark or Delia Owens, or anyone else, in relation to the killing of a suspected poacher during one of their organization’s patrols. Delia Owens said she was not present when the shooting occurred. The shooter’s face is blurred in the ABC footage, and the victim’s face is never shown.
Law enforcement officials in Zambia still want to solve the case and to question Mark, and Delia and Mark’s son Christopher Owens, who was present when the shooting occurred, about their knowledge of what transpired, Goldberg reported recently in The Atlantic. Zambian authorities told Goldberg that they don’t believe that Delia Owens was directly involved in the killing, but view her as an important potential witness, Goldberg has said.
Has this case cast a shadow over the book — or the movie?
“Where the Crawdads Sing” continues to sell at an astonishing rate — it sold 80,550 print copies the week ending July 9 — and is currently the top-selling book on Amazon. The movie adaptation, which opened in theaters on July 15, brought in $17 million in its first weekend, a strong opening for a movie with a budget of $24 million.
But the publicity surrounding the movie’s release has been complicated by the lingering questions about what really happened in Zambia. Some of Owens’s planned appearances and interviews have been canceled following widespread media coverage of the unsolved killing. And some book and film critics have noted the tenuous, but uncomfortable, parallels between the murder mystery at the heart of the plot and the murky questions surrounding the death in Zambia.
“The same ethical solipsism that enabled Owens’s past adventures abroad presides over ‘Crawdads’,” the critic Laura Miller wrote in Slate, noting that the film “can’t escape it, either.”