Between the Lines: Mysteries in the Wild

Mar 27, 2015

Joe Heywood and friend in northern Michigan
Credit Joe Heywood

Few authors are as prolific as Joseph Heywood, who will soon have 20 books on the shelf with his name on the spine. The tenth volume of his popular "Woods Cop" mystery series is coming soon, but his newest work, a collection of short stories called Harder Ground, was published by Lyons Press in March 2015.

Heywood takes the writer’s mantra of “write what you know” to heart. He's a Portage, Michigan, resident, but six months of each year he heads north to spend time in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula riding along with conservation officers, seeking adventure. His "Woods Cop" series is based on these experiences. The main character of the series is a male officer named Grady Service, but his new story has only female protagonists, all game wardens, in each story. Poachers, drug smugglers, and violent criminals inhabit most of these mini-adventures; others showcase Heywood’s tongue-in- cheek sense of humor; and still others, a heart-tugging look at the truth behind what some call "monsters."

“It takes a special woman, a special person, to be a cop, but even more so for a woman,” says Heywood. “I’m very impressed by what I see in the DNR corps. They’re really good at their jobs, and they are passionate about it as a way of life, not just a way to get a paycheck.”

Credit Lyons Press

The Michigan Department of Natural Resources opened wide its doors to the author after his first novel in the "Woods Cop" series called Ice Hunter. He was called in to DNR headquarters in Lansing to discuss that book. Heywood says the conversation with the department's top law enforcement officer began with a moment of trepidation. Heywood thought he must be in hot water, and he was, but not for the reasons feared. The chief told him his officers never slammed doors, unlike in the book, and never kept whiskey under the seat of their vehicles. The chief said they only drank from square bottles so they wouldn't roll around on the floor. With those minor corrections and a friendly handshake, he won permission to keep close company with wilderness law enforcement officers in Michigan.

Dedicating Harder Ground to just female game wardens, Heywood says, was his nod of appreciation and respect to the challenges women in uniform face and overcome so well.

“They’re having a really difficult time finding qualified candidates,” he says. “Females as well as males. The age group that they’re going at now is of a generation that’s not as actively involved in life and have a really hard time with the physical and the emotional demands of the work.”

Heywood says from the class of 44 that began the DNR conservation officer academy in January 2015, seven have already fallen from the ranks during training.

“We’ll end up with about a 15 to 20 percent loss,” he says. “We started with four females and two of those are gone, with two left. It’s very difficult to find women who want to do this kind of work and then who can get through the academy, which is 22 weeks of difficult training.”

Heywood also writes the "Luke Bapcat" mystery series, based on the history of conservation officers in the Upper Peninsula. He's also written other novels, some of which are being re-released in the coming year.

Listen to Between the Lines on WMUK every Tuesday at 7:50 a.m., 11:55 a.m., and 4:20 p.m.