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Delia Owens has seen mainstream success as the author of "Where the Crawdads Sing," the hit book that's now a movie starring Daisy Edgar-Jones. However, all the new attention on the film has brought a complex and shocking story from Delia's past back into the spotlight. Years ago, Delia left Zambia, Africa, after being tied to a murder investigation. She is still currently wanted for questioning by the Zambian government.
Before she was a bestselling author, Delia and her husband, Mark Owens, were zoologists and conservationists based in Africa, originally in Botswana before moving to Zambia. While there, the couple became involved in an effort to stop elephant poachers. Mark, according to a piece published in The Atlantic in July, had "gradually come to command a corps of game scouts in North Luangwa, outside of Zambian-government oversight, by buying their loyalty through the provision of weapons, boots, and money." The couple, Jeffrey Goldberg writes, had essentially "militarized the 2,400-square-mile park." They were eventually joined in the country by Mark's son from his first marriage, Christopher Owens, who became a part of their battle against poachers.
The end of their time in Africa began when the Owenses wrote about their conservation work in their 1992 memoir, "The Eye of the Elephant," leading to a feature in a 1996 episode of the ABC News documentary "Turning Point." The episode ends with a clip of a man, said to be a poacher but also referred to in the episode script as a trespasser, being executed on camera via gunshot by an unknown assailant.
Shortly after the episode was filmed, the Owenses left Zambia. The documentary triggered the ongoing police investigation of the family's activities, and the victim's body has never been found. In 2010, Goldberg published an investigative piece in The New Yorker called "The Hunted" about the murder.
Goldberg's investigation found that the Owens family's actions toward poachers had frequently been aggressive and even violent, which the Owenses have denied.
Today, Mark, Delia, and Christopher are all still wanted for questioning in Zambia. "There is no statute of limitations on murder in Zambia," Lillian Shawa-Siyuni, Zambia's director of public prosecutions, told Goldberg, per The Atlantic. For his 2010 article, Goldberg said Delia told him the family didn't "know anything about" the murder. "The only thing Mark ever did was throw firecrackers out of his plane, but just to scare poachers, not to hurt anyone." Additionally, Delia said, "Chris wasn't there. We don't even know where that event took place. It was horrible, a person being shot like that." Again in 2019, she denied any involvement to the New York Times. According to The Atlantic, Mark and Christopher's lawyers have previously denied their involvement. POPSUGAR did not independently reach out to Mark and Christopher for comment.
Readers of "Where the Crawdads Sing" have called out some similarities between the book and the details of the murder case. "Where the Crawdads Sing" follows Kya Clark, a girl who grows up alone on the wild North Carolina coast. She is eventually implicated in a murder investigation when one of her lovers is found dead. Ultimately (spoiler alert!), the truth is revealed: Kya committed the murder. Her actions are painted in the novel as merited by the circumstances, and she escapes punishment for the crime.
There are other echoes of Delia's past in "Where the Crawdads Sing." One character in the story, named Sunday Justice, has the same name as a man who worked for the Owenses as a cook in Africa. The real Justice is also mentioned in the Owenses' memoir "The Eye of the Elephant." However, in the memoir, Justice's speech is likened to a child's, and he seems wowed by the Owenses' travel on an airplane. The real-life Justice countered his depiction and told Goldberg he had flown on planes as a child and had been in the Zambian Air Force.
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All this forms a contradictory web of details that connect Delia's real life and her writing, adding complexity to the story of "Where the Crawdads Sing." These details could be interpreted in many different ways, but one thing is clear: there's more to this story than meets the eye.
Delia, who has not yet publicly addressed the similarities between the murder controversy and the book, has herself acknowledged her work's greater context. "Almost every part of the book has some deeper meaning," the author said in a 2019 interview with Amazon. "There's a lot of symbolism in this book."