Steven Horn didn’t set out to write a series of novels. But when his character Sam Dawson unearthed a chilling mystery in a lost graveyard in his first book, people seemed to anticipate more from the character.
The character finds himself entangled in the mystery of another crime in Horn’s third of the award-winning Sam Dawson series, “When They Were Young.” The book is set for release this week and the Cheyenne-area author will launch his book signing tour Oct. 26 in Cheyenne. “Longmire” series author Craig Johnson wrote a blurb describing Dawson in “The Pumpkin Eater” as “one of the more likeable characters to debut this year.”
The first in the series, “The Pumpkin Eater,” won the 2014 Benjamin Franklin Gold Award from the Independent Book Publishers Association in the mystery/suspense category. The novel and its sequel, “When Good Men Die,” also became 2014 and 2016 Eric Hoffer Category Finalists.
Readers seem to respond to the character and the plots that keep them guessing until the end, Horn said. Sam isn’t the kind of bigger-than-life hero found in many crime fiction novels, Horn said. People tend to identify with the flawed character, described by a Kirkus Review as being obsessed with his career and as having no close friends other than his dog.
Sam, a photographer, never set out to solve crime. In the latest novel, he comes across a dead girl frozen to the ground while fishing in the Laramie Range west of Cheyenne. But once again, he’s compelled to find out why, Horn said.
“Sam suffers from this almost pathological need to discover the truth all the time,” Horn said.
This time, the mystery leads Sam and those close to him into a dangerous web of revenge, according to the book description. Strange happenings are afoot in the isolated ranch house his ex-girlfriend and publisher, Annie George, rents, while Sam competes with a handsome animal behaviorist for her attention.
His dog also plays a significant role as well, which was why Annie called the pet psychologist, Horn said.
“With exquisite tension and attention to detail, “When They Were Young” is very highly recommended both as a stand-alone psychological mystery and as a continuation of Sam’s life and challenges as he fields a stormy road to an ultimate, impossible choice,” said the Midwest Book Review.
People often bring up the research he puts into his novels, Horn said. Horn is a former dean of the University of Wyoming’s College of Agriculture and a professor of animal science. Before moving to Wyoming, he was secretary of agriculture for the state of Colorado. He’s enjoyed writing since high school, and his first novel, “Another Man’s Life,” is based on his experiences in the Vietnam War.
Horn spent his academic career publishing in a pretty tough venue, he said.
“It’s called peer-reviewed journals. It’s not for the faint of heart,” he said. Academics teaches critical and skeptical thinking, but readers let down their guard with fiction, he said. That allows the writer to plant ideas, he added.
“When you’re trying to teach somebody, there’s no better substitute in the learning process than a good story,” he said. “Fiction can make people learn faster. If you infuse your fiction with true things you can get people to learn those things and lessons from history. So that’s been part of my goal is to use fiction as a tool to get a message to my readership.”
His first Sam Dawson novel delved into genetics and the history of the eugenics movement in the early 20th century.
“There’s a fair amount of reproductive endocrinology and reproductive physiology and a lot of genetics, and all three of those things are extremely boring,” he said. “So to get the readers interested and to turn the pages, you’ve got to put them in a form that they understand and is entertaining for them.”
A key character in the latest book is an animal behaviorist, so the book delves into pet psychology, Horn said.
“Hopefully the reader takes away a keener and much better understanding of their pet,” Horn said. “And when you look at the dog you don’t think that there’s a whole lot going on there, well there is.”
Horn doesn’t read much in the mystery and suspense genre, he admits. That’s because he doesn’t want his writing to become formulaic. His books don’t follow a pattern, which perhaps is another reason they’ve become popular.
“They challenge the reader,” Horn said. “And they hardly ever are able to find out who the bad guy is, until the epilogue.”