A photographer taking pictures of gravestones uncovers evidence of a horrifying crime in this mystery novel.
Colorado photographer Sam Dawson sums up his life this way: “Divorced, no close friends, obsessed with his career, and only a dog for companionship.” Ten years ago, he was too busy to visit his dying mother; now, as some kind of absolution, he’s taking pictures of tombstones in her hometown of Oxford, Iowa. Sam uncovers eerie likenesses between the Iowa cemetery and one thousands of miles away in Cambridge, Colo. For example, Eugene Eris, a doctor, is buried in each, 18 months apart with the same birth dates and the same mysterious epitaph: “Wellborn Are My Children.” Even the gravediggers for both sites look like twins. Ignoring threats and trying to romance a beautiful genetics researcher, Sam digs through dusty file folders, computerized records and layers of bureaucracy as he zeros in on Dr. Eris’ place in the early 20th-century eugenics movement—and his hideous crimes. Horn (Another Man’s Life, 2012, etc.) has constructed a truly unsettling mystery backed by in-depth knowledge of science, Colorado bureaucracy and politics, and history. Who knew, for example, that a eugenics section of the State Board of Stock Inspection was still part of Colorado law? The pieces fit together well; e.g., an inherited genetic condition serves both to put Sam’s daughter in danger and to reveal the ironic tragedy of Eris’ schemes. Horn’s characterization, dialogue and pacing are solid. He makes the wise decision to set the novel in 1999, so plot points aren’t simplified by current technology. These days, Sam’s discoveries could have easily gone vial, but that would have given the story a different ending. A few creaky tropes from mystery thrillers can be found here: not calling the police because “who’s going to believe this wild story?”; the untrustworthy girlfriend; the bad guys hurting Sam emotionally and predictably. Horn plans further Sam Dawson mysteries, and criticisms aside, readers will look forward to the next outing.
Dramatic and intelligent, this is a smart start to a new detective series.